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Letting Go

Chapter Text

So I would choose to be with you.
That’s if the choice were mine to make.
But you can make decisions too,
and you can have this heart to break

Billy Joel

 

Eight years ago

“Claire, love, please remember, I am no’ walking away from ye.”

“Well, that's what it feels like.”

“I have tae go, ye ken that. It’s ma family’s survival, it’s the future of Lallybroch. This contract we have wi’ the breeding stables in Kentucky, I have tae do it… I have tae go. But I'm askin’ ye tae come with me.”

“You’re asking me to give up the dream I’ve had since I was a little girl, to be a doctor, a surgeon.”

“There must be hospitals in Kentucky where ye can continue that dream, wi’ me.”

“But none with the reputation that Glasgow has. It’s pioneering work here, and Dr. Hildegard says…”

“So it’s Dr. Hildegard as has persuaded ye on this then. She should keep her mouth shut and let ye decide for yourself.”

“I am deciding for myself. Can’t I stay here and we try to make it work long distance?”

“That’s no’ goin’ tae work and ye ken that. Ye work all the hours ye can. How often would ye be able tae visit me? If I visited ye, how much time would ye spend away from the hospital? Nah, Claire, I want ye tae come wi’ me… us together.”

“Jamie, I want us together too, but I want my dream as well, Dr. Hildegard says it’s my calling. Don’t make me choose, please.”

“Aye, weel, I reckon ye’ve already chosen. It’s funny ye want tae be a cardiologist, fixin’ people’s hearts, because Claire, I tell ye, ye’ve just broken mine.”

*************

Present Day

“Uncle Lamb, Uncle Lamb?” Claire dropped her car keys in the bowl on the hall table and shrugged off her coat. “Are you in?”

She walked down the hallway, the sound of her heels on the chequered floor tiles echoing in the silence. Quickly scanning each room as she passed by, she continued a one-sided conversation with her unusually silent uncle. “Has the post been today? Where is it? Did my copy of The Lancet arrive?”

Finally arriving at the door to her Uncle’s study, she knocked gently before entering. The scene that greeted her was familiar, unchanged since she was a child. The large, dark, wooden desk was strewn with a forest’s worth of paper, fixed in place by a haphazard assortment of stones, belt buckles and ancient bowls, and lit by a single desk light. The old leather chair turned away from the desk to face the window overlooking the back garden.

A garden of this size was a rarity in the suburbs of Glasgow, and Claire had to admit, was sorely in need of some tender, loving care -- Claire being short on time and Lamb short on inclination. But she had always loved the view from this window, as had her uncle.

One of her first memories, following the deaths of her parents, was quietly creeping into this study, desperately looking for assurance that her uncle was there, yet trying not to disturb him. Her ninja skills being unrefined at age five, Lamb had heard her and immediately swept her into his arms, settling her in his lap as he sat and turned the chair to face the window.

“See there, Claire,” he had whispered to her. “Over there, that’s where we’ll put a swing, if you’d like. I want you to be happy here. This is your home, too.”

The swing, much used, was still there, now rusted and wobbly with weeds breaking through the wood-chip ground cover beneath.

The desk seemed more untidy than usual, a layer of envelopes and official looking letters covering its surface. Uncle Lamb was sitting facing the window. He swung back to face Claire.

“Hello, Uncle. Have you got my copy of The Lancet? There’s an interesting article on a non-surgical approach to mesenteric vascular disease…”

Claire looked at him and stopped. His eyes were red rimmed and watery. “Lamb, what is it?”

She rushed round the desk and crouched beside him. “Are you ok?”

He pointed at the papers on his desk and sighed. “The bank, the credit card companies…”

Claire focused on the collection of letters in front of her, statements and demands from an assortment of financial institutions, some of them dated months ago.

“Uncle, what are these? I don’t understand. Why haven’t you talked to me about these before?”

Lamb cast his eyes down to his hands, fingers nervously worrying his cuticles. “I don’t know… I thought I could sort it out… that you’d never need to know. But the bills just kept coming, and the amounts kept getting bigger. I didn’t want to burden you with it. I should have been able to cope. But now, I’m worried… I don’t know how to get out of this.”

Claire was silent for a moment, doing some rough mental calculations. It seemed to add up to quite a sizeable amount, certainly more than was evidenced by her uncle’s usual lifestyle. She didn’t want to embarrass him more than he obviously was, but she needed to understand.

“Uncle, how did this happen? I’m sorry, but that’s a fair amount of money to have spent so quickly.”

“The field trip last summer, that six week dig in Turkey. That’s where it started.”

“But I thought those expenses were covered by the university. Not funded out of your own pocket?”

“Well, you know the universities at the moment, cutting back on everything nonessential. Apparently research into cairn burials around the Black Sea is not relevant enough for today’s modern universities. The funding they gave me was a pittance… practically an insult.” Lamb spoke bitterly. “How can learning about what has made us who we are not be relevant? What did I always tell you, Claire?”

“A people who do not know their history are fated to repeat it.” Claire answered automatically, years of visiting historical sites with her uncle had drilled this into her brain.

“Exactly! You understand, Claire. And there is more to be done over there, that trip just set the groundwork. I’m sure that…” Lamb’s eyes brightened at the thought of future archaeological digs.

One of her Uncle’s many endearing qualities had always been an otherworldliness that focussed his mind on the significance of the past at the expense of the trivia of his present. Claire had never minded having to shoulder the responsibilities for their ‘trivial present’, leaving Lamb free to explore the ‘significant past’. Even now, part of her longed to be able to take this financial predicament away from him, leaving him to dream and plan for his next expedition.

But, she had to be practical. Lamb had to set aside any thoughts of future trips until this financial problem in his trivial present had been dealt with. And Claire thought she had just the solution.

“Uncle, no, please.” Claire interrupted. “I’m sorry but you can’t be thinking about that at the moment. We have to sort this out. You are going to have to sell this house.”

Lamb was immediately jolted from dreams of the past back to the present. He stared at Claire, aghast at this suggestion. “Sell the house? I couldn’t do that! This is our home.”

Claire cleared her throat and paused for a second before she spoke again. Her medical training had taught her to view objectively, taking all emotion out of her surgical procedures. And surely that’s what this is, she told herself, another surgical intervention -- quick, clean strokes to sever the bonds and leave everything repaired good as new.

“Lamb, you know as well as I do, this house is too big for us. We’re rattling around in here, and half the rooms we never even go in. How many people still live in great big Edwardian villas like this? You only have to look down this road, most of these houses are converted into flats. I’m sure a property developer would give us a good price and you could get something smaller. And it’s high time I got my own place. A flat close to work would be great.”

“Claire, I can’t sell this place. It’s where you grew up. It’s what I want to pass on to you, your inheritance. No, I won’t do it. There must be another way.”

*************
Claire settled herself in the battered chair reserved for visitors to the office and waited for Mrs. Fitzgibbons to return with the promised cup of tea. Glenna Fitzgibbons (widely known as ‘Mrs. Fitz’), had been her Uncle’s secretary at the university for many years and knew him better than anyone apart from Claire herself. Claire hoped that she might be able to use her considerable influence to persuade Lamb to sell the house.

Mrs. Fitz bustled into the office with a tray filled with what seemed to be a full afternoon tea. Settling behind her desk, she poured two cups of tea from her favourite novelty thatched cottage teapot, added milk from the matching jug and passed a cup to Claire, along with a scone liberally spread with butter and jam.

“I canna bide the notion of jes’ dippin’ a teabag in a mug of hot water, ye ken. A cup of tea, properly brewed, mind, can fix anything. So, pet, tell me, how are ye? And what’s mitherin’ ye? I ken there’s something goin’ on.”

Claire sipped her tea. “Oh, Mrs. Fitz, I’m so worried. Has my uncle spoken to you about his current financial situation?”

“No, that he hasna, but from the look on yer face, I’m guessin’ that’s what’s on yer mind. Talk tae me, how can I help?”

“Well, he’s been hiding it from me, but that last trip he did to Turkey, he practically had to fund it himself and it’s wiped him out financially. He owes so much now, the only way I can see out of it is to sell the house, but he refuses. I was hoping maybe you could talk to him, change his mind?”

Just the act of talking to Mrs. Fitz made Claire feel a bit better. She couldn’t remember how many times growing up she had sat in this office while Mrs. Fitz had shared pots of tea, advice and great big all-enveloping hugs. There was a time, in her teens, when Claire had asked her advice on everything, looking for a female, almost motherly view that Lamb, much as he loved her, was unable to provide.

Once into her twenties, although their bond remained strong, the need for this advice waned. Although, Claire sometimes wondered how different her life would be had she sought out Mrs. Fitz eight years ago rather than relying on another’s counsel.

Claire passed over a piece of paper with her rough calculations on it. Mrs. Fitz studied it intently.

“I’m thinkin’ there may be a way round this. How about if we could convince Lamb he didna have tae sell, but could rent the house out for a couple ofyears and then use that money tae pay off what he owes. The university has some accommodation for faculty members at a peppercorn rent but what about ye? Where would that leave ye?”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ve been thinking for a while, it’s time I got a place on my own. This is just forcing me to make the move.”

Claire took the paper back and folded it before placing it carefully in her handbag. “I know the funding from the university wasn’t great, but this amount looks really high… I don’t know, has anything changed?”

Mrs. Fitz pursed her lips and remained silent for a moment before responding. “Aye… Malva… his latest grad student. She went on that trip with him.”

Claire was taken aback. “No… surely not… you don’t think…”

“Och, nay, I dinna mean that. But she was determined tae go on that trip wi’ him, and somehow convinced him. And the equipment… for years yer uncle hasna changed his equipment, now, suddenly nothing but the best state of the art imagin’ equipment will do. And a drone, he’s bought a drone. Now I’m no’ one tae point the finger, but all this started when she began tae work wi’ him. Mark ma words, she’s tryin’ tae make a name fer herself here at the university… and at yer Uncle’s expense”

And with that, Mrs. Fitz sat back and furiously began to munch her scone.

Chapter Text

And each town looks the same to me
The movies and the factories
And every stranger's face I see
Remind me that I long to be
Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound

Simon and Garfunkel

 

The subdued ping indicated that the captain had switched the seatbelt sign off and it was safe to walk around the cabin. Not that Jamie had any intention of doing that. The luxury of a business class seat meant that for once, he didn’t have to spend the entire flight with his legs folded and his shoulders hunched, trying to somehow fit into the space allocated to an economy passenger. No, for this entire flight, he planned on stretching out on his wonderfully reclining seat as much as possible, preferably with a glass in his hand.

He sipped his glass of champagne and wiggled his toes appreciatively, now clad in the soft sleep socks provided by the airline. The business class ticket from Dulles back to the UK was an indulgence, but, for once, Jamie felt he deserved it. Eight years he’d been away in America. Eight years with only fleeting trips home, little time to spend with his sister and her ever-expanding family. But the breeding programme he’d been working on in Kentucky was now inextricably linked with the breeding at the Lallybroch stables, providing much needed stability for the Fraser family business. The time was finally right for him to return home, back to Lallybroch for good.

His father’s heart attack, six months before, had made Jamie realise how much he was missing and how much he wanted to come home. Although his father was now making a good recovery, Jamie’s stomach turned over as he remembered the panicked phone call from his sister Jenny in the middle of the night and the mad dash to the airport for a plane, any plane to bring him across the Atlantic and then to Scotland. That heart attack had been a bolt from the blue, catching the whole family unawares.

Jamie’s mind began to wander. If things had been different, maybe she might have picked up some symptoms, detected the heart problem earlier. No... he stopped his traitorous mind from going down that path.

Accepting a top up of champagne from the passing steward, Jamie thought about his plans. Once he’d caught up with his family, he knew he had to spend time reconnecting with his old friends. He had kept in touch over the years -- emails, the odd FaceTime conversation, a fleeting visit -- but it was never the same as actually being around all the time, dropping by for a coffee, a quick pint or dram in the pub, making last minute plans for a run. He had a lot of time to make up.

There was one connection from eight years ago that Jamie knew he would not be looking to reestablish. When he first arrived in America, he thought about her all the time. He lived in a state of expectation, convinced she would ring or email, admitting she had made a mistake and would come to him. He caught glimpses of her in every crowd, only to be disappointed when he got closer. As time went by, his disillusionment grew until he finally accepted she would not be reaching out to him. So he trained himself never to think about her, never to wonder what she was doing, never to ponder on what might have been. And if, after a couple of drinks, he found himself tempted to Google her name or search through social media, he quickly sought out alternative diversions.

There had been a few alternative diversions during Jamie’s time in America. All very willing and pleasant enough, but ultimately very one-sided. Each one ended with no regret or sense of loss on his part. His heart had healed nicely and he intended to keep it that way.

As the cabin lights dimmed, Jamie pulled the blanket over him and settled down for a nap. As he was pulled deeper and deeper into sleep his mind wandered, random images crowding his brain… horses in a field… his father relaxing in his study… light reflecting through a whisky tumbler… being put to bed drunk… the scent of lavender hand cream… soft hands against his cheek… a mop of brown curls on the pillow next to him…

Awake, Jamie could stamp out these thoughts, prevent them from taking root, but asleep, well, his mind would not let him forget.

*************
Claire had been pleased but not a bit surprised by Mrs. Fitz’s powers of persuasion. A little chat with Lamb over a couple of cups of her cherished Fortnum and Mason Royal Blend tea, poured from the Royal Palaces bone china teapot (purchased on a recent trip to Kensington Palace) had convinced him to rent out the house for a maximum of two years, at which time his finances should have returned to a healthier position.

With that battle won, Claire then encouraged her uncle to contact all the creditors and agree monthly repayment plans. All this was dependent, of course, on finding tenants for the house.

Although she decided not to say anything to Lamb, she was still worried. Their house, even in an appealing suburb of Glasgow, was an acquired taste. On the one hand, the high ceilings, elegant sash windows and very large garden would be attractive to prospective tenants, but the downside was the sheer size of the six bedroomed Edwardian villa and its associated running costs. It was true what she had told him, most of the similar properties in the vicinity had been converted into blocks of flats frequented by young professionals. She still believed the logical decision was to sell. However, that was not her choice to make.

The reaction of the letting agent did not inspire confidence either. After he was shown around the entire house, making copious notes and taking many pictures on his phone all the while, Claire waited patiently while he appeared lost in thought, contemplatively sucking air through his teeth. Finally, he quoted a figure suitable for monthly rental before issuing a caveat.

“Ye ken, this may no’ be that easy tae rent out. It’s an awfa big house, sae many bedrooms. Would mebbe suit a family wi’ five or six bairns, and ye dinna see many of those around these days.” He sighed. “We’ll do our best… but would ye no’ consider selling? There are builders who would jump at the chance tae own a property like this.”

Claire smiled, her most reassuring smile guaranteed to calm the nerves of patients and their loved ones. “I’m sure you’ll do your best, Mr. Shand. I have every confidence in you.”

********

Claire’s confidence seemed to be misplaced. A fortnight went by before she heard from Mr. Shand again. She was at her desk dictating patient letters when Mr. Shand rang her with an update.

“Ms Beauchamp, jes’ tae give ye some news,” he began. “I have had some interest in yer house and I’m arranging a viewing. I dinna ken if ye wanted tae show them around or leave it tae me?”

“Well, if I’m free I’d be more than happy to do it. Depends when it is.” Claire reached for her large desk diary.

“They said they would like tae view this Saturday, afore the rugby if possible.”

Claire flicked to the page. “That seems to be fine with me. Who are they? Is it a large family?”

She could hear Mr. Shand flicking through papers in the background. “Weel, no. It’s jes’ a couple. What drew them tae yer house is the garden. They have been living abroad for a few years but are returning home and want a place near the city centre but wi’ a bit of green about them. Perhaps they feel they will miss the wide open spaces, ye ken. Anyway, I believe they are no’ long married. Their name… Fraser… Mr. And Mrs. Fraser.”

Suddenly Claire felt the contents of her stomach rising up. Swallowing hard to quell the nausea, the phone slipped from her hand and clattered to the floor. Scrambling to retrieve it with fingers refusing to cooperate, she could hear Mr. Shand calling her name.

Breathlessly, she managed to pick the phone up and speak, her voice hoarse. “Sorry, Mr. Shand, I just dropped my phone. I’m sorry, I was looking at the wrong date. I’m afraid I won’t be at home on Saturday after all. Sorry, could you do the honours?” She cringed at her repeated apologies.

Claire folded her arms on her desk and rested her head on them, trying to calm her breathing. For god’s sake, it had been eight years, she would not have expected him to remain celibate. Getting married was not unusual and it would no doubt make bringing a partner to live here much easier from an immigration point of view. But did he not recognise the address? Had he forgotten all about her, or did he just not care?

Sitting up straight, she tried to think logically, not jump to conclusions. She lived in Scotland, where the surname Fraser was not exactly rare. There must be thousands of couples with that name. It wouldn’t be her Fraser.

Claire had not even thought about him in the past few years. Gone were the days when she lay in bed longing for his touch, sleeping with her phone on the pillow in case he rang to apologise. Her heart never skipped a beat when she caught a glimpse of fiery red hair in a crowd of people. She never found herself religiously watching Scottish rugby matches wondering if, across the Atlantic Ocean, someone else was watching too. She only kept his faded old rugby shirt because it was so comfortable to sleep in… there was no other reason at all.

Claire was a honest person, she prided herself on it. And she was… very honest… at work, with friends, with her uncle.

The only person she regularly lied to was herself.

Chapter Text

Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I'll be here 'til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

Joe Strummer/ Mick Jones - The Clash

 

By Saturday, Claire had made a plan of action. She was determined to spend all day away from the house to avoid any unfortunate run-ins, just in case this Fraser turned out to be her Fraser (no, not ‘her’ Fraser… the Fraser with whom she had, in the past, been acquainted). Uncle Lamb would be at the university, so she arranged for a full day of flat hunting. She was adamant that somewhere out there was the perfect flat for her and by the end of Saturday, she would have found it!

Claire set out early in the morning to work through the list of addresses saved on her mobile, ignoring the greyness of the day and the continuous drizzle across the city. By mid afternoon, her mood matched the Glasgow weather. On paper, each flat looked and sounded perfect. In reality, none of them was what Claire was looking for. She felt like Goldilocks in the children’s fairytale: the flats were either too modern with small, square rooms; too symmetrical and bland; or too industrial with huge loft-style rooms; too harsh and urban. All her hopes were pinned on the last property on her list -- one of 4 flats in a classic Victorian townhouse.

As soon as she climbed the steps to the grand front door and stepped into the common hallway dominated by the large staircase with wrought iron bannister, Claire knew this was the place. Entering the flat just confirmed her first impression, the large living room was bright and airy with high ceilings and large bay windows. Claire wandered round the rest of the flat, picturing how her furniture would fit exactly into it. The estate agent trailed quietly behind her, sensing a deal was in the offing.

Finally, he spoke up. “It’s jes’ come on the market and I dinna think it will be on fer long. No chain, the owner’s jes’ moved tae Australia. Aye, left everything tae be wi’ his girlfriend, she’s Australian, ye ken. In fact…”

Claire interrupted him, his story touching a nerve she thought had long ago been cauterised. “And it’s fixed price, not offers over, then? Well, yes. This is it. Can we go to your office and get the ball rolling then?”

************
Claire let herself in and headed down the hallway to her uncle’s study. She knew that’s where he would be. Knocking gently before entering, she found Lamb in his usual position, staring out of the window at the garden, now pruned and manicured. Several boxes lay around the room, a half-hearted attempt to fill them had obviously been abandoned.

“I’ve bought a flat, Uncle.” There was genuine excitement in her voice.

“And I’ve rented the house out. That couple… they want it. Mr… er… the agent chap rang here to tell us. As soon as possible, he said.” Lamb’s voice sounded hoarse.

Claire tried to raise his spirits. “It’s only for a couple of years, and then you’ll be back here. As if you’d never been away.”

“Yes, but, my darling girl, I feel like I’ve let you down. This is your home… was your home and I’m taking it away from you.”

Claire perched on the edge of the desk and rested her hand on Lamb’s arm. “Uncle, you’ve never let me down. You’ve always been there for me, ever since I was a little girl. And maybe this was the push I needed to move forward. I’ll be happy in that flat, I know I will.”

She looked around the study. “So, come on, no more moping. Let’s get sorted.”

************
The next few weeks were a maelstrom of activity. Paperwork, packing, measuring up, in addition to Claire’s work at the hospital, took up all of her days and a fair few nights as well. She didn't ask the agent or her uncle anything about the new tenants, didn't even glance at the tenancy agreement, and cast aside any troubling thoughts on the reasons behind this reluctance.

The day for the move quickly arrived. Claire and Lamb stood together on the pavement, watching quietly as all their worldly goods were divided into three trucks -- one for Lamb in his university accommodation, one for storage and one for Claire in her new flat. She thanked her lucky stars that her flat had such well proportioned rooms, so that she could use large pieces of furniture from the house.

Finally the trucks were closed up and sent on their ways. Claire and Lamb stood awkwardly, not knowing quite what to say.

“Well,” Lamb broke the silence. “It’s going to be strange, not being together here.”

Claire tried to lighten his mood. “But we’ll probably see each other just as much. Remember days and days can pass without us meeting up, with my shifts and you stuck in your work. Don’t be sad. Just think, you’ll be that much closer to the university archives and anyway, I’m coming round for tea in a couple of days. You can’t get rid of me that easily, you know.”

She hugged him tightly, inhaling the familiar aroma of his jacket, remembering the comfort from his arms wrapped tightly around her as a little girl, the rough fabric of his favourite tweed jacket scratching her cheek.

She pulled away and quickly headed to the taxi. Time to go.

*********
As anticipated, Claire arrived at her new home before the removal men. She wandered across her (her!) own hallway when a head appeared around her front door.

“Morning. Welcome, new neighbour. Wondered if you’d like a coffee… or tea? I’m Mary, by the way. I live across the landing.” Mary moved into the hall and shook Claire’s hand.

“Hello, I’m Claire. Claire Beauchamp. And yes, thanks, I’d love a coffee.”

“Ah, another English interloper, I see. Be right back. How do you like your coffee?” Mary called over her shoulder as she headed out of the door.

“Black, no sugar, please.”

“Ooh, hardcore!”

Mary returned a few minutes later with the mugs of coffee, closely followed by another woman. It was obvious they were sisters; there was a strong family resemblance, and yet somehow the features changed between the two. Only slightly, but enough to make the difference. The newcomer’s hair was just that little bit shinier, her lips that bit fuller, her eyes that bit brighter. She was radiant, Claire decided, even wearing those baggy jogging bottoms and faded t-shirt.

“Hi,” the newcomer spoke. “I’m Anna, Mary’s sister. We’re just across the landing and you’re Claire?”

“Yes, nice to meet you.”

“Oh, wow, poor Mrs Crook.” Anna and Mary laughed.

Claire felt bemused. “I’m sorry?”

“No, sorry, we should explain…” Anna spoke, a hint of laughter in her voice. “Mrs. Crook lives in the flat below you. She’s been here for years and years, a lovely, sweet ‘wee wifey’ and John lives in the flat below us. John’s English, too… so poor Mrs. Crook. Here in the centre of Glasgow, yet surrounded by us Sassenachs.”

An uninvited memory stirred in Claire’s brain… fingers touching copper curls, blue eyes heavy with desire, heated breath on her neck, a whisper in her ear: “Sassenach…”

“Hello, Miss Beauchamp… ye there?” The voice came from the main hallway downstairs. “Can we start tae bring yer stuff up, love?”

Claire pushed the memory back in its box. Clearly, it was all due to the move, stirring up lots of conflicting emotions. Nothing more.

She smiled at Anna and Mary. “Think that’s my cue… now the hard work begins!”

*************
Jamie stood for a moment on the pavement, looking up at the house. He had wondered, when Murtagh texted the address, whether his memory had been playing tricks. But no, now he was here standing right in front of his past. He glanced up at the top left hand window, almost expecting it to open and her head to appear, curls blowing medusa-like while she frantically waved.

He took a deep breath and walked towards the front door. It opened before he had a chance to knock. Suddenly he was enveloped in his godfather’s arms.

“Christ, Jamie lad, it’s sae good tae see ye. How long has it been? Come in, come in, I want ye tae meet ma wife, Jocasta.”

Jamie followed Murtagh into the house. “And it’s grand tae see ye too. It’s been ten years since ye upped and left us fer New Zealand. Ye havena changed a bit.”

“Aye well, ye have. Ye were nought but a lad, and still wet behind the ears, when I left. Look at ye now. America obviously suited ye.”

Murtagh led Jamie towards the kitchen at the back of the house. Of course, the furniture was different than he remembered, but the decor had remained the same. He thought of the hours he had spent in this kitchen, sharing drinks and food with her. Laughing and chatting together until late, and then, by silent agreement, making their way up the stairs to that bedroom, constantly touching, always a connection, never wanting to be apart.

A different woman was waiting in the kitchen with the coffee ready to pour and a bottle of Glenmorangie placed on the table. No longer in the first flush of youth, she was still very handsome, and obviously took pains to remain so. Murtagh snaked his hand around her waist and pulled her close to him.

“Jamie, I’d like tae present ma wife, Jocasta… Jocasta, this is Jamie, ma godson, Brian’s lad. We’re no’ the only ones returning tae the homeland, ye ken. Jamie’s jes back from America… been there fer, what? Six years?”

“Eight years, Murtagh. Eight years”

Jocasta pulled away from Murtagh's grasp and gave Jamie a big hug. “Welcome, lad, sae nice tae meet ye. I’ve heard an awfa lot about ye. And yer Da is that proud of ye, is he no’, Murtagh?”

Murtagh, busy pouring generous measures of whisky into three glasses, looked up at the mention of his name. “What? Och, aye, Brian is that pleased ye’re headin’ back tae Lallybroch. It’ll be a big help tae him. He’s no’ the man he was.”

“And ye’ll always be welcome here when ye want tae come and spend time in Glasgow. We have sae many bedrooms here. Weel, too many really. The house is too big fer us, but after the feeling of open spaces in New Zealand, we dinna want tae feel boxed in, ye ken?”

Jamie sipped at his whisky and watched Murtagh and Jocasta -- their loving glances and slight touches filled him with happiness for his godfather, who had been alone for so long before finally meeting Jocasta two years ago.

“Excuse me, I must jes’ use the bathroom.” Jamie began to walk out of the kitchen.

“Would it no’ help if I told ye where the bathroom was? Quite a big house, may take ye a while tae find it wi’out directions.” Murtagh called after him. “Turn left and head down that passageway, second door on yer right.”

“Oh… er… Aye. Thanks.”

On his return to the kitchen, Jamie found Murtagh and Jocasta at the french windows engrossed in conversation as they gazed over the garden, now somewhat neater than he remembered.

“... so we could put a bench over there tae catch the morning sun fer our coffee at breakfast…”

“... and we could have the fire pit over there fer the evenings. But we’d need tae move that swing…”

******
Nine years ago

“You know, when I first moved here after my parents died, this swing was the first thing Uncle Lamb bought for me. I think he wanted to show me this was my home too. I always loved this swing.”

“Sit on it. I’ll push ye if ye like.”

“Jamie, don’t be silly. I’ve not been on that swing in years. I’m not even sure it’s safe… I remember how I used to try and go as high as possible -- do a loop-the-loop. Not sure what would have happened if I’d ever managed it. Just fallen off, I guess.”

“Come on. Have a go. I’ll give ye a push. Ye dinna need tae worry about falling, ye ken, I’m here tae catch ye… always.”

******
“No!” Jamie interrupted more forcefully than intended. “Dinna move the swing.”

Murtagh and Jocasta both turned and stared at him. He felt his face flush.

“Why ever no’ dear?” Jocasta asked. “It’s no’ but a rickety old swing. I’m sure it hasna been used in years.”

Eight years, perhaps, Jamie thought. “I dinna ken. It jes’ feels right there, like it belongs. I’m sure the owner would miss it.” He spoke quietly. “I mean, even though they dinna see it, mebbe they jes’ like tae know it’s still there.”

Murtagh looked at him with concern and cleared his throat. “Jamie, lad, are ye drunk or jes’ gone soft in the head?”

Chapter Text

If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by

Burt Bacharach/ Hal David

Claire sipped her coffee and looked contentedly around the living room. She couldn't quite believe she had moved in only ten days ago. It felt like she had lived here for ages. Having furniture from the house probably helped, she reasoned, although she wasn’t sure what would happen when Lamb returned there in two years time. Would he expect the furniture to be returned? And would he expect her to be ‘returned’ too? Now that she had finally made the move, she doubted she would ever return to live there.

She had definitely fallen lucky with this flat… and with her neighbours. Mrs. Crook was as sweet and kind as Anna and Mary had said. Ten days in and Claire had already been the recipient of an apple turnover, a steak and kidney pie and half a dozen scones.

And, even in this short time, she had grown fond of Anna and Mary. Anna worked in marketing at the King’s Theatre whilst Mary was an accountant in the local tax office. They seemed very different; Anna was very outgoing and vivacious with a wide circle of friends, always heading out to parties or social functions whilst Mary was quieter and more reserved. And yet, they lived together very amicably -- their characters complementing each other’s.

Then last night, Claire had finally met John, who worked as a book editor for a publishing house. Their exchange had been brief. Claire was just coming in the front door after a long day at the hospital, whilst John was on his way out for some evening's entertainment, elegantly dressed and smelling divine. He kissed her warmly on both cheeks before continuing out of the door, calling assurances that they would indeed meet very soon for a ‘proper welcome to the building’.

Claire glanced at her watch and, suddenly realising the time, rushed into her kitchen, pulled a bottle of Pinot Grigio from the fridge and made her way across the landing to Mary and Anna’s flat.

The door to their flat was already ajar. Claire knocked and walked in. Mary and Anna were sitting in the living room, full wine glasses in hand.

“Hi, Claire. You want a drink before we go out?” Mary made to stand up.

Claire motioned her to sit. “Yes, great. Don’t get up, I’ll get it myself. And I’ll pop this one in your fridge.”

From the kitchen, Claire heard the front door open again, followed by John’s voice greeting the girls.

“Mary... lovely, my dear. Anna… as glamorous as ever. I hope you don’t mind if an old friend joins us for dinner, do you? I hadn’t seen him since uni, twelve years ago and we reconnected at a reunion-type thing this week.”

Claire took a sip from her glass as she wandered back into the living room.

“So, this is Jamie…”

The thump of Claire’s wine glass as it hit the carpet interrupted John’s introductions. She immediately bent down to retrieve it before rushing to the kitchen for a cloth. Her cheeks burning, she leant against a countertop and stood still for a minute, trying to calm her breathing.

From her initial glance, he hadn’t changed that much in eight years. His hair was shorter. No longer touching his shoulders, it was barely long enough to curl. His shoulders were a bit broader too, clad in one of those flannel checked shirts he was always so fond of. She hadn’t dared to focus on his face… or his left hand.

She could hear John’s introductions continuing. And then he spoke. That soft Highland burr seemingly unaltered by the years in America. He spoke a low tone, too low for Claire to hear, his utterances drawing laughter from Anna and Mary.

“I’ll just see if Claire needs a hand.” Mary’s voice rose above the laughter, causing Claire to abruptly grab a dishcloth and hurry back into the living room.

“I’m so sorry, Mary, Anna. The glass just slipped from my hand… must be my hand cream… not rubbed in properly…” Claire’s nervous rambling finally ground to a halt.

“Don’t worry, this carpet’s seen far worse than a drop of wine.” Mary took the cloth and dabbed at the small patch of damp next to her. “You just sit down Claire.”

Claire perched on the edge of the sofa obediently.

“And here we have the newest inmate in our building… Claire Beauchamp… Jamie Fraser.” John was determined to finish. “Claire’s another damn Sasse…”

“Hello.” Claire broke into John’s introductions, finally glancing up at Jamie.

With a curt ‘hi’, Jamie nodded his head in response.

“So, Jamie, you joining us for dinner, then? We’ve got a table at the ‘Star of India’. You like Indian food?” Anna turned her full attention to Jamie.

“Aye, I’ll be happy tae join ye if ye dinna mind. Indian’s one of ma favourites.”

****

Nine years ago

“Ye ken, Sassenach, when ye said ye were takin’ me out fer a meal, I dinna imagine this… er… place.”

“Oh, what did you imagine?”

“Och, I dinna ken… somewhere with wee flowers, candles, soft music, tablecloths and a glass or two of wine. No’ these bench tables, beer from the bottle…”

“I love the food here. It’s my favourite. What are you going to order?”

“Chicken Korma, or do they do an omelette?”

“Jamie, do you not like Indian food?”

“Honesty, is it? I canna say I do.”

“Let me order for you. I’m sure you’ll love it. But if you don’t like it I promise we don’t have to come here again. I’ll get my curry fix when you’re not around.”

“Is that a threat there, Sassenach? Because, let me tell ye, I plan tae always be around, ye ken.”

******
“Are we all ready to go then?” John looked around the room. “I’m sure the restaurant won’t mind another one joining our party. Might just have to squeeze together a bit more but I’m sure that’s not a problem, eh, Jamie?”

Anna and Mary led the way out of the flat, followed by Claire, with John and Jamie bringing up the rear. Jamie’s eyes drifted to the brown curls three steps below him.

Once he had got over the initial shock of seeing her, a neighbour of his friend no less, he tried to study her appearance through surreptitious half glances whilst maintaining his air of indifference. Not that it was an act. He knew himself to be indifferent to her. The past eight years had proved that.

At first sight, she seemed pretty much the same. From the introductions, it was clear that she wasn’t married. Her curls were as untamed as ever; perhaps she had lost a bit of weight. But the way her hands fluttered around her face in agitation hadn't changed. Neither, apparently, had her obsession with hand cream.

******
Nine years ago

“Come to bed, Sassenach. I want that round arse of yers here next tae me right now.”

“In a second. Just finishing.”

“How many times do ye have tae put that cream on yer hands?”

“But they get so dry with constant washing and using the hand sanitiser all day. I have to keep putting it on. You don’t want my hands all rough, do you?”

“Och, no, Sassenach. When ye put yer soft hands there… oh… like that… and hold me… aye… and stroke… oh god… yer touch…”

******
Downstairs, the door to Mrs. Crook’s flat was slightly open.

“Mrs. Crook...” Anna peered around the door. “Hello, Mrs. Crook, are you ok? Your door’s open.”

“Come in dear. I must have forgotten tae close it.”

Mary turned to Claire and Anna. “That’s not like her. Mind if we just check?”

As they stepped into the hallway of Mrs. Crook’s flat, it quickly became apparent that things weren’t right. The small Persian rug on the floor lay crumpled and askew. The side table had obviously been knocked, the Royal Doulton figurine laying on its side. They made their way into the living room to find Mrs. Crook sitting with one leg propped up on a stool. There was a cut just below the old woman’s hairline, the blood still fresh on her skin.

“Oh, Mrs. Crook, what happened?” Mary rushed to her side.

“Och, Dinna fash. I jes’ tripped up in the hall and banged ma head on the table. I’m fine, dinna bother about me.”

Claire’s professional instincts took over. “Can I see?”

Gently she touched the raised leg, her hands moving instinctively over the limb, pressing and prodding, looking for signs of pain or discomfort on Mrs. Crook’s face. Once satisfied, Claire sat back. “I think you’re very fortunate. You’ve only sprained your knee. We can put an ice pack on that to help with the swelling. I’m more concerned about the knock on your head. Do you feel sick, or sleepy?”

“Nae more than usual.”

“I think we need to take you to A&E, get you checked out there.”

“Oh, no, Dinna fash. I am no’ goin’ tae the hospital. I’ll be fine here. I can see ye’re all on yer way out. Dinna let me stop ye. Go, have fun.”

Claire looked sternly at the old woman. “No, I’m not leaving you here. You may have a concussion. If you won’t go to the hospital, then you’re going to have to put up with me staying to keep an eye on you.”

Mrs. Crook opened her mouth to protest, but Claire halted any protestation. “I’m not actually asking you, I’m telling you. That’s my plan. I’m going to go and get my medical bag and we’re going to spend the evening together watching the telly and drinking tea. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Once outside in the main entrance hall, Claire explained the situation to John. Jamie stood next to Anna, listening.

“Oh, that’s a shame,” John said sympathetically. “Are you sure you couldn’t maybe join us later?”

“No best not. But you all go and have a good night.”

Claire stood and watched as, laughing and joking together, the four of them headed out into the street.

******

Nine years ago

“So, have ye always wanted tae be a doctor, then?”

“Yes, ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to heal people, make people better. I think maybe it’s because… no, sorry…”

“What were ye goin’ tae say?”

“Er… maybe it’s because my parents died when I was a small child. Maybe I want to try to protect families from having to go through that. I don’t really know. I only know it’s always been my big dream.”

“I ken ye’ll be a grand doctor. I can tell. Ye’re a true healer.”

********
With Mrs.Crook comfortably settled, an ice pack on her knee and the cut on her head cleaned and washed, Claire sat down for an evening of watching television. As the opening credits for ‘X Factor’ appeared on the screen, she finally let her mind begin to wander over the evening’s events.

Like an unaccustomed hole in a tooth that the tongue is repeatedly drawn towards, even with the knowledge of pain to follow, so Claire’s mind kept being drawn towards Jamie, analysing every aspect of his sudden and very unexpected debut.

His physical appearance (still as muscular as ever, perhaps even more so, ageing well); his voice (no trace of the past eight years in his accent); his attire (still the same casual clothing, but worn so well. No wedding ring but then he never would wear any jewellery anyway so…); his demeanour (open and friendly… except to her).

And then, Claire realised, came the pain -- We have met. Now we are strangers, worse than strangers for we may never become acquainted.

Chapter Text

Got a loaded imagination
Bein' fired by girls talk
It's a more or less situation
Inspired by girls talk

Elvis Costello

It was just after one in the morning when Claire finally felt able to leave Mrs. Crook’s flat and return to her own. She hadn’t really been listening out for the return of the others, but as she got ready for bed, it was clear that they appeared to be making a night of it. Not that it was any of her concern, of course.

The next morning, having checked on her patient and found her to be a bit sore and bruised but otherwise in good form, Claire stepped outside for a run. She wasn’t actually keen on running, but it seemed a necessary evil, based on the amount of baked goods she knew would be coming her way from Mrs. Crook in the very near future. And, she thought as her feet led her to the park nearby, my style can’t exactly be classed as running.

********
Nine years ago

“I waited fer ye tae catch up wi’ me, Sassenach. Are ye out of breath?”

“... er… can’t... talk… need... a minute…”

“We’ve no’ gone verra far, and ye’re no’ even doin’ proper runnin’. Ye’re jes’ kinda bobbin’ up and down and flappin’ yer arms a bit. Come on, let’s go a wee bit further.”

“How.. how… can you not be out of breath at all?... This will be the death of me, James Fraser... I’m only doing this because I love you.”

“I ken, and I’m only doin’ this so I can watch yer arse jigglin’ around...aye, like that.”

“Let go, I’m all sweaty and stinky… oh, where’re we going?”

“Back tae yer place. I have plans tae get ye even sweatier and then clean ye up… see, look how fast ye can run when ye want tae.”

****
Red-faced and slightly smelly, Claire stood at the entrance to the flats trying to extricate her key from her pocket while juggling a large cup of coffee and the heavy mass of Sunday newspapers. The door suddenly opened from the inside and Jamie appeared in the doorway.

Startled, Claire’s grip on the newspapers relaxed and they began to slide out of her hand. Instinctively, Jamie reached out and grabbed them, tucking them securely under Claire’s arm.

“Er, thanks.”

“Ye seem tae be making a habit of dropping things.” Jamie responded, no trace of humour in his voice.

“Sorry.” Claire wasn’t sure what she was actually apologising for, but felt compelled to say something. “Er… did you have a good time last night?”

“Aye, it was grand, verra good food.” Jamie spoke formally, as though to a stranger. “And how is yer neighbour now?”

“She’s doing well. She’s one tough cookie.” Claire winced inwardly, the obvious Americanism sounding false to her ears.

“That’s good tae hear. Well, goodbye then.”

“Bye.”

****
The pile of newspapers lay untouched on the sofa next to Claire. She leant her head back and closed her eyes, trying to make sense of her emotions over the past twenty-four hours. So many questions crowded her mind. Was he married, or was it a coincidence that a Mr. And Mrs. Fraser were currently living in her house? Would she see him again, and if so, would the frigidity between them ever thaw? Could they ever become, well, not exactly friends but amicable acquaintances? And, he had obviously stayed the night in one of the flats, but which one? He had never agreed with the idea of casual sex, but that was eight years ago. A lot can change in that time. And if so, would it have been Mary or Anna?

In the interests of being neighbourly, Claire told herself, she decided to go and see Mary and Anna to give them an update on Mrs. Crook’s condition.

It was a very bleary-eyed and pale Anna, wrapped in a faded bathrobe, who opened the door to Claire. Coughing, she shuffled her way into the semi darkness of the living room, Claire following behind. Mary sat, similarly attired, nursing a large glass of orange juice.

Mary cleared her throat. “Morning, fancy a coffee then, Claire?”

“Tell you what, you both relax and I’ll make coffees for all of us. And where do you keep the paracetamol? I think you could do with some.”

While the coffee was brewing, Claire found the paracetamol and gave two to each of the sisters. Ignoring their cries of protest, she opened the curtains and let the midday sun stream into the room.

The combination of coffee, orange juice and medication seemed to do the trick. By the time the first mug of coffee had been consumed, followed by a second mug with thickly buttered toast (all prepared by Claire), the sisters were able to fully engage in a conversation, rather than their initial monosyllabic responses.

“So was it a good night last night?” Claire asked casually.

Anna groaned. “I want to say yes… I seem to remember laughing a lot… and we went to a bar… was there karaoke, or am I imagining that?”

Mary laughed. “It wasn’t actual karaoke. That was the bar’s background music… that you insisted to sing along to… at the top of your voice… and with your hairbrush as a mic.”

Anna put her head in her hands. “God, no. How can you remember all this? Were you not drunk too?”

“Apparently not as much as you. Could have been worse, you did ask me which would make a better microphone- your hairbrush or a tampon. I advised the brush!”

“Is that all?”

“Well, you did rather try to force Jamie to sing too. I think he did it to humour you… well, don’t think it could be called singing… more a kind of chanting on one note.”

******
Nine years ago

“I feel wonderful because I see… The love light in yer eyes… And the wonder of it all… Is that ye jes’ don't realise how much I love ye”

“What?”

“Christ, Sassenach, have ye no romance in yer soul? I’m serenading ye here, a wee bit of Eric Clapton”

“Oh, is that what it was? Thanks, that’s a lovely thought, but… er… no… nothing.”

“What? I can tell from that glass face of yers, ye’re no’ impressed. Ok I admit it, I canna sing, I canna hear the music but I listen tae the words, ye ken. Ma voice may be lackin’ but I meant it all, every single word.”

“Oh, Jamie. Come over here and I’ll show you how much I appreciate it.”

*******
“So was everyone drunk then?” Claire continued the interrogation.

“Well, maybe not as much as Anna, but everyone was certainly merry. In the bar, we ordered a bottle of wine but Jamie and John moved onto whisky and I’d stopped drinking at that point, so basically Anna had a full bottle to herself.”

Anna groaned again. “I’ve just remembered walking home. Did I really make Jamie give me a piggyback?”

Mary nodded. “Yup. And you kept stroking his hair while he did.”

“Oh, did Jamie not go home then?” Claire tried to appear indifferent.

“No, John said he could crash at his. Jamie’s home isn’t in Glasgow anyway. It’s somewhere miles away, in the Highlands, I think. He’s been staying with his uncle, or cousin or something down here. Apparently, Jamie’s been in America for years and years and now he’s home for good and reconnecting with everyone.”

Claire thought for a moment and tried to think how best to phrase the next question. There was no way to be subtle about it. “And there’s no Mrs. Fraser, then?”

“Don’t think so. I’m sure he said he had no ties.” Mary answered.

Anna groaned for a third time. “God, don't you hate it when your memory starts coming back? Ignorance really is bliss, you know. I think I asked him why he was single, with a body like his. Don’t look at me like that, you two. I mean, come on, you saw him, what woman wouldn’t want a piece of that?”

“And what did he say?”

“My memory goes a bit hazy then. I think he said something about travelling around too much to settle, and then something about synchronicity... and then I had to go to the bathroom to throw up.”

***************
Claire looked round her office in frustration. Why Human Resources had to perform another audit was beyond her, but, as part of this totally necessary skills and qualifications audit, she had been asked to produce several certificates and diplomas relating to her current role -- originals, not copies. She had found most of the certificates, but was now struggling to locate her diploma for Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. It wasn’t anywhere in her flat, nor was it in any of her office cabinets. She had a sneaking suspicion she knew exactly where it was… in the document safe, in the loft, back at the house. Bugger.

*******
“Ye’ll be staying fer a brew, then will ye?”

“If you’re sure I’m not bothering you, Mrs. Fraser.”

“Och, it’s nae bother… and, please call me Jocasta. Ma husband will be here in a minute. I’m sure he’ll be wantin’ tae meet ye.”

Claire sat in her kitchen (no, remember, not her kitchen any more) while Jocasta busied herself making a pot of tea and adding a tin of shortbread to the table.

“I guess mebbe we should use another room tae sit in, but I do love this kitchen. Murtagh and I eat most of our meals in here.” Jocasta poured the tea and passed it over to Claire.

Sitting across from Claire and picking up a shortbread finger, she continued. “We’re verra happy here, ye ken. I’d been in New Zealand fer nigh on thirty years, went over wi’ ma first husband, but always wanted tae come back. Then when I met Murtagh and we talked about getting married, we kent we’d come home together fer good.”

“Were ye talking about me?” Murtagh came up behind Jocasta and planted a kiss on the top of her head.

“Murtagh, this is Claire. This is her, weel, her uncle’s house. She needed tae collect something, and now she’s staying fer a cup of tea and a wee chat.”

“Please tae meet ye, Claire. I dare say Jocasta’s told ye we’re mightily fond of this house.” Beneath the heavy dark beard, streaked liberally with silver, he smiled softly. “It’s tae big fer us really, but it means we can have plenty of visitors coming tae stay with us. Ma goddaughter has three bairns. And ma godson is jes’ back in Scotland himself. He’d been in America fer several years.”

Claire started at the mention of Murtagh’s godson. It couldn’t be, and yet… she placed her cup on the table a little too quickly, banging against the biscuit tin.

Murtagh continued. “Aye, he did well over there but there’s always the pull of yer own home. He and his sister live up no’ far from Inverness. A quiet wee place, sae I think he likes tae come and stay fer a bit of excitement, mebbe a lassie or two has caught his eye.”

He gave an exaggerated wink as Jocasta playfully punched his arm. Claire tried to appear calm, but worried about her ‘glass face’, she picked up her cup, holding it in front of her face as some sort of shield.

“Ow, what was that fer?” Murtagh joked. “I’m jes’ sayin’ what I think. ‘Tis high time the lad settled down. Even more so now he’s runnin’ Lallybroch since his da’s heart attack.”

Shocked, Claire inhaled sharply. “Heart attack?” she asked without thinking.

Jocasta studied Claire’s face. “Aye, Murtagh’s cousin had a heart attack six months ago. Why, dear?”

“Oh, no matter,” Claire struggled for a reasonable response. “I’m a cardiothoracic surgeon. Professional interest, that’s all.”

“Professional interest, is it?” Jocasta replied, with a smile. “Aye, that’s all.”

Chapter Text

Play all my records, keep dancing all night
But leave me alone for a while
Till Johnny's dancing with me
I've got no reason to smile
It's my party and I'll cry if I want to
Cry if I want to
Cry if I want to
You would cry too, if it happened to you.
John Gluck/Wally Gold/Herb Weiner/Seymour Gottlieb

“So, this Saturday, we’ve decided to have a party,” Anna announced as she entered Claire’s flat.

“It’s not a party,” Mary clarified, following Anna into the living room. “It’s a gathering.”

“What’s the difference?” Claire asked.

“Half the people, half the alcohol and zero sex.” Anna replied, pulling a face at her sister. “But, apparently, that’s all I’m allowed. Anyway, if you want to invite anyone from the hospital, feel free. Especially if there’s any of those ‘Dr. McDreamy’ types floating around. Love me a man in a white coat.”

“Or in a flannel shirt and jeans, eh, Anna?” Mary laughed.

Claire smiled politely at Mary’s comment. “Unfortunately we don’t have many of those McDreamy types around the hospital but I’d like to ask a friend, if that’s ok?”

“Fine. Is this friend hot and single?”

Claire couldn’t help but laugh at Anna. “Well, I know Joe’s single and I suppose he’s hot, but you’ll need a totally different frontal configuration to pull him!”

“Ooh, maybe blind date for John, then. It’s high time he had a relationship. And what about you, Claire? Have to see if there’s anybody we can invite for you.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me… not sure relationships are quite my thing.”

Nine years ago

“So, Claire, can I ask… I dinna want tae pry, but are ye courtin’ at the moment?”

“Gosh, courting, that’s a word you don’t hear much nowadays… sorry, didn’t mean that to sound abrupt. It’s a lovely word… full of old values, manners and respect. But no, I’m not courting. I’ve never been sure how a relationship would fit into my life… studying and working long shifts at the hospital.”

“Ah, ok, I see…”

“Jamie, that wasn’t an excuse. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you this evening. I’m glad I decided to come to this party. It’s been…”

“Special? It’s been special fer me. I’d really like tae see ya again. Can I give ye a call, go fer a drink or a meal mebbe?”

“Have you a pen?... There you go.”

“Thank ye, Claire. See ye soon, then.”

“I’m looking forward to it, Jamie.”

**********
Despite Anna’s repeated assurances to Mary that this was not a party... would never be a party... was only a few friends having a few drinks, the overspill of guests out of their flat, onto the shared landing and down the stairs proved otherwise.

Claire peered over the bannister, eagerly awaiting Joe. He had texted a few minutes earlier to announce his imminent arrival. She scanned the people milling about on the stairs -- no sign of Joe yet, just the familiar red curls and broad shoulders of Jamie making his way up the stairs, a bottle in his hands.

*********
The party seemed to be in full swing. Jamie could practically hear the music from the road, the beat of a heavy bass line pounding in his chest as he climbed the stairs. He looked up and caught a glimpse of wild brown curls. The beating in his chest grew stronger for a moment.

Nine years ago

“Mo nighean donn.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s Gaelic, means my brown haired lass.”

“Mmm, sounds so much better in Gaelic, far less boring. I sometimes feel like cropping it all off, or dyeing it, or having it straightened. Anything to change this dull curly mop.”

“Och no, Sassenach, dinna change it. Dinna ever change.”

********
Claire assumed that Jamie had gone straight into Anna and Mary’s flat. Perhaps he hadn’t seen her, or just decided not to greet her. She cast that thought aside as she spotted Joe taking the stairs two at a time to reach her.

Joe lightly kissed her cheek as Claire took him by the hand and led him into her neighbours’ flat. Surveying the assortment of wine boxes strewn across the kitchen table, he carefully selected an inoffensive looking Sauvignon Blanc, poured a tiny bit into the bottom of a plastic wine glass and sipped it dubiously. It obviously met with Joe’s approval as he filled two glasses and passed one to Claire.

Settling herself against a kitchen unit, Claire nodded slightly in the direction of the doorway.

“See there,” she muttered to Joe. “The chap in the doorway with the cream sweater and navy trousers? That’s John, who lives downstairs. Anna suggested fixing you two up. You interested? I can introduce you.”

“Hmm. Maybe, although I’m not sure I’ve a chance. He seems pretty taken with that guy he’s talking to. Although... move here Claire, have a look... I’m not getting a gay vibe from him. I think he’s straight.”

“He is.” Claire spoke instinctively.

“Well, that was said with great conviction. And how do you know, Miss?”

Even in the subdued lighting, Joe could clearly see the blush spreading across Claire’s face.

“Aha,” he exclaimed. “It’s the one that got away, isn’t it?”

“Wha… why… no. What do you mean?”

“Claire, darling, I’ve been friends with you for four years now. I know the passion that lurks underneath that cool exterior. You’ve dated in that time, but there’s never been anyone serious, has there? No-one’s managed to cut through that coolness to the passion below. And that’s because you’ll never forget the man that got away. And look at me, quoting Judy Garland songs at you! How cliché! So spill…”

Claire took a large swig of her wine. “Not really much to tell. We dated a bit several years ago, then he went off to America to work, so that was the end of it. I hadn’t thought about him in years, until it turns out he’s a friend of my neighbour, John a.k.a the hottie from downstairs. And that’s it.”

Joe looked closely at his friend, not believing that Claire was telling him the whole truth. “And is there not a spark ready to turn into an incandescent flame? Do your eyes meet across a crowded room? Are you ready to jump his bones?”

“Really, Joe, that’s all there is. We’re acquaintances, that’s all. Nothing more.”

“Ok, Claire, if you say so. And, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a mingle.”

Claire stood and sipped her wine as Joe headed into the living room, warmly greeting everyone as he passed. Claire envied him his natural ease in social situations. Debating whether to go and find one of her hosts, she was all too conscious of Jamie, just on the edge of her vision. She watched as Anna walked past him, briefly stopping to chat to him. Her hand rested lightly on his upper arm, her face upturned to his. He smiled as she spoke.

“Excuse me, sorry, can I just reach across you for a glass, please?” Claire’s attention was drawn back to her immediate surroundings. She moved slightly to allow the man access to the wine glasses. He reached over for two glasses and moved away to the table before returning with both glasses filled.

Claire looked down at the glass she was holding, empty. The man smiled and passed her a full one.

“I know this sounds like some sort of chat up line, but … do I know you?”

Claire laughed. “You’re right, it does sound like that and no, I don’t think you do. Unless you’ve been at the hospital lately. I work there.”

“Never set foot inside there. Touch wood.” He looked around for something to touch before lightly tapping his head. “I’m Frank, by the way. So what do you do there, er... ?”

“Claire. I’m a cardiothoracic surgeon there. How about you?”

“Wow.” Frank looked genuinely impressed. “That must be incredible. Oh, well, I’m a doctor too, not dealing with the living though.”

“You’re a pathologist?”

“Historian. I’m working at the university. Came up from the University of York about four months ago now.”

“That may be where you’ve seen me… at the university, visiting my uncle. Lambert Beauchamp. Do you know him?”

“You’re his niece? I know Lamb… good man, sound research. That must be it. I knew I knew you. Never forget a face. So, Claire Beauchamp, how come you’re at this party?”

“I’m a neighbour. Live right across the landing. How about you?”

“I know John from his publishing company. I’ve been having some meetings there. They want me to write a book… or series… a crossover between academia and the great unwashed… considering different aspects of life… and death.” He nodded his head in acknowledgement to Claire. “So, you live across the way? Could we move over there, where it’s quieter, for a chat?”

Claire chose to ignore Frank’s last question. “Anna certainly seems to have invited everybody she knows and just as many she doesn’t.”

As she stood awkwardly next to Frank, a somewhat inebriated woman lurched towards the assortment of bottles and boxes on the table, jostling Claire in the process. With a slurred “oops”, the drunkard swiped a bottle of red and stumbled out of the kitchen.

Claire looked down at her shirt, now soaked in white wine. “Frank, please excuse me. I must go and change.”

He started to speak but she moved quickly away before he could ask to accompany her.

Jamie was standing alone at the top of the stairs, holding two glasses, not, she noticed, of tepid wine box wine but whisky... and probably a good single malt too, she guessed.

Nine years ago

“What do ye mean? Ye dinna like whisky? And ye, livin’ here in Scotland fer most of yer life.”

“Sorry, is that a deal breaker? Does that mean it’s the end for us?”

“Dinna joke about that, Sassenach. And dinna joke about the whisky. It’s a serious matter. I think what ye’re actually sayin’ is that ye dinna like the whisky that ye’ve already tried. There’s a whole world of flavours with whisky. Can I teach ye?”

“Mmm… do that again… I like whisky when I taste it on your lips…”

“Weel, Sassenach, that’s a start.”

*******
Claire hadn’t seen Jamie since meeting Murtagh and Jocasta and felt that she really wanted to tell Jamie how sorry she was about Brian’s heart attack. She’d met him several times and knew how close he and Jamie were. She assumed that hadn’t changed during the time apart.

She walked across to Jamie. He looked up, surprised at her approach, then smiled tightly.

“Jamie… I... ” she spoke hesitantly. “I met Murtagh and Jocasta.”

“Aye, ‘tis a coincidence… in yer house. I sometimes feel…” he stopped himself.

“I didn’t tell Murtagh I knew you, but he mentioned about your dad, having a heart attack. Just wanted to say how sorry I am and I hope he’s doing ok.”

Jamie gazed into his whisky, the exact colour of Claire’s eyes. His traitorous mind always noticed that.

“He’s doin’ grand now. Thank ye fer askin’.” The formal tone had crept back into his voice.

Claire stood awkwardly for a moment. “Well, someone soaked my shirt in wine. I’d better get it sorted. Bye.”

“Bye, Claire.” Already Jamie was looking over her shoulder, waiting for the owner of the second whisky.

*********
Having changed her shirt, Claire checked her reflection in her hall mirror. Hearing the murmur of familiar voices, she paused, her hand on her front door knob. Peering through the spy hole, she could see John and Jamie, strangely distorted, standing close to her door, engrossed in a conversation.

The old adage says that eavesdroppers never hear any good of themselves, but that didn’t prevent Claire from quietly opening the front door a crack and positioning an ear against the gap. Picking up mid-conversation, it quickly became apparent what, or who, they were talking about.

“I didn’t know that you knew each other.”

“Aye, well, that was a few years ago.”

“But the pair of you never said… never acknowledged each other. Like strangers.”

“Probably better that way. It wasna the best ending.” Jamie's voice sounded flat. “She… er… I moved tae America. She didna. If it hadna been fer ye being neighbours, I would never have even seen her again. Eight years is a long time, people change.”

“And in all that time you never wanted to get in touch with her, or wonder what she was doing?”

“No, never. Ye have tae move on.” Jamie responded quickly. “Anyways, come on, we're due a top up and I'll show ye where I've hidden the single malt.”

Claire sank down to the floor, her back against the door.

She began to reason with herself, trying to be logical about the situation. Eight years had passed, since all had been given up. She was just being absurd, letting her feelings and thoughts run wild. Eight years should really have given her enough time to banish all those emotions and for them not to re-emerge. So many life-changing or world-altering events can occur within eight years.

And yet, Claire realised, logic had nothing to do with it. To her emotions, eight years was as nothing. Time had passed, but her feelings still remained, even after all hope had gone.

Chapter Text

It's just a little crush (crush)
Not like I faint every time we touch
It's just some little thing (crush)
Not like everything I do depends on you
Andy Goldmark/ Mark Mueller/ Berny Cosgrove/ Kevin Clark

Even before she opened her eyes, Claire sensed the body lying next to her. Hazy recollections of the night before came back to her… Jamie's coolness, meeting Frank, the overheard conversation and the final realisation that eight years may have disguised her emotions but time had done nothing to erase them.

And then, thankfully she remembered as she turned over to greet the bed's other occupant, Joe had found her, weeping in her flat. Tenderly he had held her as she cried and then supervised her bedtime routine, making sure she cleaned her teeth and removed her makeup before grabbing a blanket from the spare bedroom and lying next to her on top of the covers, listening to her confessions before, exhausted, she fell asleep.

Opening her very sore eyes, she saw Joe, apparently still asleep, breathing softly, next to her. Claire started to get up, but Joe caught her arm, keeping her on the bed.

“How are you this morning?”

“Not too bad. My eyes are sore and I desperately need a shower and a mug of coffee, but no hangover… yet”

“Claire, you know what I mean. All that you said last night. How do you feel emotionally?”

“Much better, yes. Think last night was cathartic.”

Joe looked at Claire and scowled. “The truth, Claire. Don’t be hiding it away. It’s taken you eight years to get this far.”

Claire sighed. “Ok, Joe. Truth… truth is, I think I held myself back from relationships, from letting go, because I thought… hoped… dreamed that he’d come back. He’d come home and find me. And now he has, he's come home and made it perfectly clear it’s not for me. Living here, I’ll have to see him sometimes, but I’m not going to live in a dream world. I’ll get past this. Honest.”

Joe raised her hand to his lips. “I know you will. And I’m here for you. Now you go and make us two incredibly strong coffees, while I hop in your shower.”

With a dehydration headache looming, brought on, no doubt, by a surfeit of both alcohol and tears, Claire stood at the kitchen sink and drank two large glasses of water while she waited for the kettle to boil.

A knock at the door broke her concentration. She wrapped her bathrobe tightly around her and went to answer it, pausing in front of the hall mirror. It was as bad as expected -- red rimmed eyes, pale cheeks and a mass of tangled curls were reflected back at her and she just knew that she probably smelt as bad as she looked.

**************
Nine years ago

“Oh god, I must look hideous. I’m never at my sunniest first thing in the morning.”

“Sassenach, all I can see is a woman who, weel, lets jes’ say, made a man verra happy last night. A wee bit of mascara’s stuck tae yer cheek and yer curls have a mind of their own but ye look beautiful.”

“I can tell how happy by your grin, Jamie… and that’s not the only part of you that seems happy this morning. Ooh, Jamie… ooh, yes… what are you doing?”

“Lie back, Sassenach, dinna move. Fair’s fair. I’m goin’ tae put a grin on yer face as well.”

*******
Claire peered through the spy hole to see John standing on the doormat. She opened the door and stood back to let him in. Fortunately, he looked as rough as Claire.

“Morn...” John cleared his throat and tried again. “Morning.”

“How are you this morning?”

His voice had a throaty rasp. He coughed and carried on. “I can’t say I’m feeling my best. I’ve been awake since six. Jamie crashed at mine last night and had to leave to go back to work… something to do with a new foal or a mare… well, something horsey, anyway. And he couldn’t find the key to the front door, so we had to spend ages looking for it and… well… here we are. I think you look like I feel, Claire.”

Claire led him into the living room. “It was certainly quite a night. Wonder if I should go and give Anna and Mary a hand cleaning up?”

“I wouldn’t bother. They’ll still be asleep. Besides, Anna has an agreement with a couple of the cleaners from the theatre. They come and sort the flat out, cash in hand. No problem. This is a regular occurrence. Bet the estate agent didn’t tell you that -- happens whenever Mrs. Crook goes off to visit her daughter in Edinburgh.”

John sat next to Claire and continued. “That’s not why I’ve come. I need to ask if you’re ok with something…”

With years of practice, Claire heart automatically leapt a little bit.

“I know you were talking to Frank last night. Frank Randall? Yes?”

The leaping in Claire’s chest stopped. She nodded in agreement.

“He’s asked me for your phone number. I didn’t want to give it to him without asking you first. Is that ok? He seems like a decent chap.”

Time to move on, she thought to herself, have to start somewhere. “Yes, why not?”

*******
Joe waited until John had left before he made an appearance, now smelling delightfully of Claire’s L’Occitane Citrus verbena shower gel.

“I decided not to disturb yours and John’s tête-à-tête. I plan on being introduced to him when I’m feeling less hungover and he’s not looking so rough. What did he want, Claire?”

Claire passed a mug of coffee to Joe and nibbled on a piece of dry toast. “That chap, Frank, I was talking to him last night, asked John for my number. John wanted to check it was ok to give it to him.”

“And what did you say?” Joe took the toast from Claire’s hand and consumed it in two bites.

“I’ll go and make some more toast.” Claire headed into the kitchen with Joe following.

“Well,” Claire continued. “I said he could give him my number. Frank seemed like a nice chap and following on from our discussion last night, I need to start moving on. Maybe this is… what is it… karma… no, not karma… synchronicity. Perhaps it’s synchronicity.”

***************

The coffee shop was, Claire decided as she looked around, an ideal place for a first date. Intimate enough to be able to hold a conversation yet without being forced to share too much personal space. Quiet enough to be able to hear each other clearly yet without a sterile silence around them. Bright enough to be able to see each other’s facial expression yet without losing a cosy ambience. Good call, Frank, perfect first date.

**********
Nine years ago

“I’m sorry, Claire, I didna think it would be sae crowded in here at this time.”

“What did you say? I can’t hear you too well.”

“It’s no’ usually sae busy here. Seems like there’s a couple of stag parties goin’ on.”

“Oops. I didn’t mean to lean against you like that, Jamie. People keep pushing past me.”

“Lean on me all ye want... This first date isna goin’ verra well... I shouldna have brought ye here. I’m sorry.”

“Jamie, will you stop apologising? I think this date is perfect.”

“Me too, Sassenach, me too.”

********
The waitress brought over Claire’s black coffee and Frank’s tea. Claire watched Frank’s hands as he stirred the tea pot: long, elegant fingers delicately held the spoon, the skin smooth and pale. Totally unlike those rough, calloused hands she remembered so well, tanned from all the hours spent working outside. Stop it, Claire forced her mind away from those thoughts and back to listening to the man in front of her.

Frank waited expectantly, obviously having just asked her a question.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Claire blushed.

“I was just asking what it was like growing up with your uncle. Did you travel around a lot?”

“Oh, yes. Every school holiday it seemed we were heading off somewhere.”

“What sort of places did you visit?”

“Varies. Mainly Turkey, but Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia.”

“All around the Black Sea then?”

Claire smiled as the memories of those trips came flooding back. “Yes, sometimes staying in little B&Bs or tiny hotels but quite a lot of camping, especially when a team went over. I can still see Lamb pouring over his copious notes by the light of a single lamp, while I tried to fry sausages on a one-ring gas burner. It was great fun. How about you? You do much travelling in your research?”

“Just to libraries or archives, I’m afraid. Nothing very exciting.” Frank shrugged.

“But if you’re writing a book, that’s exciting, isn’t it? I mean, my uncle’s never written a book.”

“Well, yes. I suppose it is. I need to have some outline to John next month, then it may happen. Do you want another coffee?” Frank drained his teacup and looked expectantly at Claire. “Or would you like to go for a bite to eat?”

Claire looked at her watch. “I’m sorry, Frank. I can’t. I have to nip home and then I promised I’d visit Uncle Lamb.”

“Oh well, another time? But you don’t live far from here. Let me walk you home.”

Claire nodded. Frank’s hand rested lightly on her back as he guided her out of the coffee shop. They walked side by side along the pavement towards Claire’s flat, Frank’s hand brushing against hers with each stride. A few paces later, and instead of the slight touch, Claire felt Frank’s hand clasp hers, cool and dry against her palm. She let it rest there and tried to force her mind away from any comparisons.

As they approached her flat, the sky darkened with the promise of imminent raindrops. They stood awkwardly at the front door, Frank still holding her hand.

“So, I had a really good time, Claire. I would like to see you again, if you want to.”

Claire smiled, then jumped as a loud crack of thunder was rapidly followed by a sudden downpour. Quickly she fumbled in her bag for her keys, then opened the door. Frank followed her into the foyer.

“So?” He spun her round to face him. “Another date?”

Claire nodded. “Yes, Frank, I’d like that. Text me and we can arrange something.”

They stood still for a moment before Frank took a step towards Claire and lightly kissed her mouth. His lips were soft and cool, his mouth practically level with hers, no need to crane her neck or stand on tiptoe to reach. She waited for a moment in anticipation of those long forgotten feelings… the butterflies, the tingling, then took a step towards the stairs.

“I’d better go. Uncle Lamb will be waiting for me. Thanks for coffee.”

**********
Jamie waited until they had disappeared from view, Claire to her flat and Frank back out into the rain, before he emerged from John’s front door. He hadn’t want to intrude on their moment. Although he had noticed, casually through the spy hole, that Claire hadn’t leant into the kiss... hadn’t seemed inclined to prolong it… hadn’t moved her hands from her sides. Not that it mattered to him, of course. It really wasn’t his business.

******
Nine years ago

“I’m sorry the pub wasna a good idea fer a first date.”

“Jamie, don’t be sorry. It’s far too nice an evening to spend in a crowded bar anyway. What could be better than this, walking in a park, sharing a bag of chips?”

“And Irn-bru… dinna forget the Irn-bru.”

“Well, I must admit, I don’t actually like that stuff. You can have the whole bottle.”

“Come here, Sassenach. Ye’ve got a wee bit of ketchup on the corner of yer mouth. Let me get it off…”

“Ha. I thought you were going to wipe it off with a serviette.”

“Och, no need fer that. Waste of a serviette.”

“Jamie, I think I’ve got something here on the other side… and a bit here… and here… mmm…”

“Ye must be an awfa messy eater, Sassenach. So many kisses needed.”

“Sorry, is that too many for you to handle?”

“I dinna think it will ever be too many fer me, Sassenach.”

Chapter Text

She was a day tripper
One way ticket, yeah
It took me so long to find out
And I found out
Lennon/ McCartney

Claire and the other occupants of the flats fell into a routine fairly easily. Sunday mornings became their time for going out for brunch to the nearby coffee shop. Sometimes, due to work or previous assignations, one of them wouldn’t make it. Sometimes, if he was in Glasgow for the weekend, Jamie would join them.

She had grown used to Jamie being around, becoming practiced in making polite conversation, even managing to ignore his smiles as Anna looked up at him, or lightly touched his arm.

Claire, Anna, Mary and John had sauntered to the coffee shop and were now seated at their favourite table, in the window, the best position for people watching. There was a feeling of spring in the air, the palpable restlessness that seems to come with the longer, brighter days and milder temperatures.

“You know what we should do?” Anna clapped her hands together excitedly, thrilled at her own idea.

“What?”

In the short time she had lived in the flat, Claire had got used to Anna’s ‘exciting’ ideas. These ranged from ordering several rounds of sambuca shots (easily achievable and considered a good idea at the time, not so good the next morning) to bungee jumping (agreed, following the sambuca shots, as a good idea but seriously reconsidered once sober).

“Let’s have a day trip somewhere… all of us. Next Sunday, instead of just coming here. We could have a picnic, or a pub lunch.”

“Nice idea,” John immediately agreed. “Yes. Let’s do it. Where should we go?”

Mary thought for a minute. “We’ve never been to Stirling Castle or the Wallace Monument. How about one of those?”

John laughed. “You two have been up here for how long? Seven years now, and you’ve never been there. They’re an hour’s drive away. Claire, please tell me you’ve been.”

*******
Nine years ago

“How many more steps?”

“No’ too many. It’ll be worth it at the top. Wait till ye see the views. Ye ken all about William Wallace, do ye?”

“I may be a Sassenach to you, but I’ve lived in Scotland since I was a child. Of course I know about him.”

“And yet ye’ve never been here before.Yer uncle an historian, too!”

“Well, to Lamb, if it happened less than a thousand years ago, it’s not really history, more like current affairs.”

“See, Sassenach… look at the views, pretty amazing, aren’t they?”

“Breathtaking.”

“And, over there, that’s where the Scots thrashed the English. Jes’ think, yer ancestors and mine coulda been there, on opposite sides, fightin’ against each other.”

“I don’t want to think about that… being on opposite sides.”

“Nae, me neither, Sassenach… together forever, that’ll be us.”

*******
“Claire, are you with us?” John playfully prodded Claire’s shoulder. “You were lost in a little world of your own for a minute.”

“Sorry, John. Yes, I’ve been to both. Wouldn’t mind another visit to Stirling Castle, though not the Wallace monument.”

Anna made the final decision. “Right, that’s it. I say we head out to Stirling Castle next Sunday. Claire, do you want to ask Joe?”

“I would, but I know he’s on call next weekend.”

“Or, how about Frank?” John asked coyly.

Claire felt herself blush a little. “No, we’re not really at that stage.”

“And what stage would that be, Miss Beauchamp?” John rested his elbows on the table, cupped his chin in his hands and stared exaggeratedly at Claire. “Hmm? Do tell.”

“Look, we’ve been out for coffee or a meal a few times. That’s it. We’re not at the ‘meeting each other's friends’ stage. And definitely not with you lot, it’d be like the Spanish Inquisition. No way.”

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” John joked as Claire deliberately turned away from him. “Well, I’ll ask Jamie. If he can’t come we’ll all fit in my car, otherwise he’ll have to drive as well.”

“Ooh, I love it when a plan comes together. Right, next Sunday… no working… no hangovers… no excuses.” Anna clapped her hands once more, sealing the deal.

********
The feeling of springtime continued through the week. This was, Claire decided, in some ways just like her budding romance with Frank -- the promise of a new start, a new life. And if, in this new life, there were certain things missing… the butterflies in her stomach as he approached, the breathless anticipation as his lips drew near, the almost unbearable desire to possess and be possessed… well, everything in life was a compromise. She knew that.

At 10am sharp on Sunday morning, everyone gathered in the foyer, ready for their excursion.

“Jamie’s just parking up now.” John explained. “He’s got a new car and he’s desperate to show it off, I think.”

Right on cue, Jamie appeared at the front door.

“I’ve bought a new car,” he announced as they stepped out onto the pavement.

Jamie led the way around the corner to a midnight blue Audi sports car. “Picked it up three days ago.”

He stood proudly beside it and rubbed an imaginary speck of dirt off the driver’s door with the cuff of his sweatshirt. “But it means I can only take one passeng-- ”

“I’ll go with you.” Anna interrupted and darted around to the passenger door.

John laughed as he unlocked his Mini. “So that decision’s been made then.”

Claire clambered into the back seat of the Mini, before Mary and John climbed into the front.

“Looks like we got us a convoy,” John joked in a very fake American accent. “Or maybe not,” he added as Jamie and Anna sped away.

Jamie and Anna were already out of the car and waiting by the time the Mini pulled in to the car park near the castle. Claire eased herself from the back seat, and leaning against the car, did a few leg stretches while Anna, Mary and John tried to plan the itinerary.

Jamie wandered over to where Claire stood.

“No’ much room fer yer legs in the back of this wee car.” He spoke quietly, the comment clearly directed at Claire.

She looked up at him, trying not to show her amazement. This was the first time he had started a conversation with her since they had met again all those weeks ago.

“No, I know. They look good, but not designed for leg room in the back.”

“Aye, I ken. I havena been able tae get in the back of a car like this since I was twelve.” He smiled then a faint blush spread across his cheeks. “Tae sit fer journeys, anyway.”

***********
Nine years ago

“So, why have we driven out here, James Fraser? Is there something you want to show me?”

“Weel, I was goin’ to spread a blanket over there on that patch of grass and lie ye down and slowly unbutton yer shirt and take down yer jeans. Then I was planning to look at ye, jes’ in yer bra and knickers, run ma hands down yer body and listen for yer wee moans. I was goin’ to take off ma clothes too and lie next tae ye before pulling off those silly wee knickers, which might have got ripped in the process, and then guiding ma cock intae ye, hard and fast… but the rain means we canna do that now... Sassenach, are ye alright? Ye’ve gone all red and I can see ye sweating…”

“James Fraser, you arse. Take off your trousers now and get in the back. I don’t care how cramped it is… it’ll be worth it.”

“God, Sassenach… to have those thighs around me… and those breasts in ma face… it’s always worth it… I love ye Claire.”

“I love you too.”

*********
“No, these aren’t the most practical cars for transporting more than two people.” Claire agreed. “But then neither is a sports car. Yours looks really nice, by the way. Not that I know anything about cars.”

“No,” Jamie said softly. “Ye never did.”

Anna came rushing over, closely followed by Mary and John.

“So,” Mary began. “We’ve planned our day. We’re going to the Great Hall, then the Chapel, then the Palace and the Prince’s Tower. Sounds good?”

Together they started to walk up the esplanade towards the castle entrance, John and Jamie leading the way, followed by Claire and Mary, with Anna bringing up the rear.

“Don’t forget the café. We have to do the café, and the gift shop,” Anna called out.

“Aye. I guess we’re all in desperate need of some leather bookmarks and a Mary, Queen of Scots trinket box,” Jamie said dryly, under his breath to John.

They paused at the entrance to the castle, waiting for Anna who had fallen some way behind. Eventually, she caught up with them.

“It’s the cobbles. My heels keep getting stuck,” she complained. “And the slope. It’s playing havoc with my footwear.”

Everyone looked down at the cute little kitten-heeled ankle boots she was wearing.

“Really?” John sighed. “Is that really appropriate footwear for clambering about an ancient castle? Look at Claire. She’s wearing trainers -- now that’s sensible.”

Everyone switched their focus to Claire’s feet. She shuffled uncomfortably.

“But I have to wear these boots, they’re faux snake skin. It’s part of my ensemble.” Anna pouted and looked coyly at Jamie. “I’ll just need somebody to hold on to.”

“Aye, I dare say we can help ye out.” Jamie smiled. “Now, we dinna need tae bother with a guide, or those headsets. I did a project on this castle at school. Anything ye need tae know, I’m yer man.”

The group having paid, Anna now led the way through the entrance, heading straight for the café. “I’m desperate for some caffeine. Shall we do that first?”

All in agreement, they made their way towards the café. Jamie hung back to walk with Claire. Surprised, she cast around her mind for a suitable topic for polite conversation, one that wouldn’t lead back to memories of years before.

Jamie saved her the trouble. “So, are ye gettin’ something tae eat too?”

“Perhaps. I’ll see what they have. Maybe if they have a chocolate…”

“... Brownie.” He finished her sentence for her.

“Er, yes, my favourite.”

“Aye, I ken.”

He strode off ahead. Claire stared after him, automatically admiring the fit of the black jeans he was wearing. Much better than those cargo pants he used to wear. Stop it, stop it now, she told herself, don’t think like that. Think of Frank, think of what a cute couple Jamie and Anna would make, think of anything, just not that…

And then Jamie turned round and looked at Claire for a brief moment before rushing to catch up with Anna. His eyes blinked. Was that due to the sun suddenly emerging from behind a cloud, or was it his attempt at a wink? Don’t think about that… think about Frank… think about Frank...

*********
Jamie wasn’t sure what had changed in his mind this weekend. Certainly when he first saw Claire again after eight years, the feelings of anger and resentment that had been suppressed all that time rose to the surface. He wasn’t proud of his behaviour towards her. He had just wanted those emotions, and Claire, to disappear, and to pretend that they had never existed.

That hadn’t happened. Nobody was going anywhere. And the feelings of anger had not disappeared, but merely been redirected… towards himself. He had let her go. She had given him an opportunity to compromise, eight years ago, and he had rejected it. And now he was home and Claire… Claire was with somebody else.

He had asked John about Claire’s new relationship and John had told him all he needed, and more than he wanted, to know. Frank was an historian, recently moved to work at the university. He potentially had a book deal -- explaining history for the masses -- with John’s publishers and who knew where that could lead? History programmes on television with charismatic presenters were very popular. The future looked bright for Frank. John considered him to be a good catch for Claire.

None of this was meant to hurt Jamie, of course. Following their conversation at the party, John just wanted him to know that Claire had moved on, he didn’t have to worry about her any more. Jamie was free to move on as he chose.

*******
True to his word, Jamie proved to be a very entertaining tour guide. Most of thirteen year old Jamie’s school project emerged from the recesses of his mind, with only the odd surreptitious glance at the guide book he had purchased.

His small group of English tourists followed him from room to room, listening to the tales of long dead kings and queens, coronations and executions, sieges and surrenders.

He was a natural raconteur -- drawing Anna, Mary, John and indeed Claire herself into these stories of heroes and foes. He had matured from the ‘young buckie’ she had known and loved eight years before into this man she would love to know better. Unfortunately, she realised, that wasn’t going to happen.

Claire watched as he let Anna take his arm, pointing out little holes or uneven floors where she might lose her footing. His protectiveness was endearing… always had been.

Together they wandered around the castle, following the itinerary agreed earlier. Last stop before the gift shop was the Prince’s Tower, traditionally the nursery of the Scottish monarchs. After admiring the graffiti etched on a window pane by a royal prince over four hundred years ago, a collective decision was taken that tired feet and aching backs could no longer be ignored and a return to the cars, ‘via the gift shop’, was in order.

Anna let go of Jamie’s arm and rushed to the stone spiral staircase, quickly starting her descent, keen to enjoy a shopping opportunity. The rest trailed at a more sedate pace.

“Anna, be careful,” Jamie called out. “Some of these stairs are a wee bit uneven. Hold up, I’ll give ye a hand.”

She carried on down, ignoring his offer of help. “I’m fine, Jamie. I’m nearly at the bottom now. You know what we should do? We should all...”

She turned back to look at them.

Claire was never sure if Anna had missed her footing on a step, or if her heel had got caught in a crevice in the stones. All she could remember was Anna’s cry of surprise, the sickening thud as her body and head hit the stone floor and then a moment of silence.

Chapter Text

Accidents can happen, it's always in the news
Accidents can happen to you
You read it in the paper, you see it on the tube
Accidents can happen
To you

B. Hall, J.B. Hall - REO Speedwagon

There was a moment of stillness. Then Mary’s scream cut through the air as she tried to run down the stairs to her sister. John held her back.

“Mary,” his voice was hoarse, quavering. “Let Claire go to her. Claire will know what to do.”

Claire was already on her knees next to Anna’s inert body. Jamie stood close by, nervously gnawing his knuckles. She felt for a pulse and checked the breathing, shallow but regular. Using the torch from her phone, Claire lifted an eyelid and shone the light into Anna’s eye.

Claire looked up at Jamie, automatically taking charge of the situation. “Jamie, I need you to ring 999. Give them our exact location, tell them that she is unconscious. Breathing is unimpeded, but there is no response to stimuli. Then find a member of staff, tell them what has happened. They need to be waiting for the ambulance to direct it straight here. Then go to the café and get a cup of tea with plenty of sugar and bring it back for Mary.”

As Jamie sprinted to the door, Claire called after him, stripping off her jacket and placing it over Anna. “Please give me your jacket. We need to keep Anna warm.”

Claire glanced up at John and Mary. She was quiet but shaking uncontrollably, John holding her upright.

“We… have… to move… her. So… cold on the… floor.” Mary tried to get nearer to Anna.

“No.” Claire sounded firm but calm. “We can’t move her. The paramedics will be able to assess and transfer her onto a stretcher safely. John, can you take Mary outside? It’s cold in here, she’ll be warmer in the sun. Jamie will be back soon with some tea.”

“Mary?” Claire spoke gently, as if to a child. “Mary, you go outside with John. I promise, I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here and looking after Anna. Don’t you worry, I’m taking good care of her.”

Mary allowed John to lead her outside, while Claire sat back on her heels and studied Anna, amazed at the look of peace on her face. Gently, she stroked her hair, her other hand gripping her wrist, fingers on the pulse point. Claire kept talking all the time, a silly inconsequential monologue delivered in soothing tones.

She had just started talking about the colour of Jamie’s sports car, when she was conscious of footsteps behind her.

“Ambulance is on its way. Staff are at the main gate and outside here ready tae direct the paramedics. John’s takin’ care of Mary. How’s she doin’?”

“No change. Still not responding. But no deterioration. We’ll know more when they do the scans at the hospital.”

Noises outside alerted them to the arrival of the paramedics. Jamie watched as Claire stood and briefed them on what had happened. She appeared calm, professional. Only the fluttering of her hands betrayed her inner agitation. Having delivered her information, she stepped back to Jamie, instinctively touching his elbow lightly.

“Come on outside. Let them do their work.”

Stepping outside, the unaccustomed bright daylight made Claire’s eye begin to water. The courtyard was empty apart from John and Mary; staff had obviously cleared the area of any possible spectators. She moved over to Mary, who was now huddled on a folding chair with John’s jacket around her shoulders, shivering uncontrollably. Claire crouched down and took Mary’s hands in her own.

“Mary, listen to me. The paramedics are with Anna now. She’s in the best hands. They’re going to take her in the ambulance. Do you want to go with her and we will follow on?”

Mary nodded.

“Don’t be scared. When you get to the hospital, there will be a lot of activity, a lot of people around Anna; that’s normal. And they will whisk her off straight away for a scan. They need to check everything before any treatment. We will meet you there. We’ll be right behind you.”

Jamie, John and Claire waited until the ambulance had pulled away before, with a final thank you to the staff and a promise to keep them updated, they headed to the cars.

*************
They quickly found Mary in the relatives’ waiting area of the Emergency Department, still with John’s jacket wrapped tightly around her. She started crying as soon as she saw them.

“They’ve taken her away… tests... they’ve not told me anything else.” She sobbed.

Claire sat down beside her. “That’s because they don’t know anything else yet. Remember I told you that they’d take her straight for scans? That’s what they’re doing now. As soon as they know anything more, they’ll come and tell you.”

“Oh, god… Mummy and Daddy, I must tell them.” Mary frantically began scrambling in her bag, trying to find her phone.

Claire stopped her. “Why don’t we wait till we know more? Better to give them more information.”

Time seemed to pass slowly in the waiting room. No one was in the mood for conversation. Mary had stopped crying, just an occasional sniff, as she leant her head on Claire’s shoulder. The only noises were the creaks and rustles as Jamie shifted uncomfortably in his chair. All heads turned in synchronisation at every sound in the corridor outside.

Eventually, the door opened and a doctor came in, iPad in hand.

“Good afternoon, I’m Doctor Sanderson, consultant here in Trauma Medicine. And you are Mary, Anna’s sister?”

Mary nodded, clutching Claire’s hands, her face white with worry.

“So, we have the results from the CT scans.” Doctor Sanderson flicked from screen to screen on his tablet, studying each in turn. “From an orthopaedic point of view, there is no lasting damage, her spine is fine. The only damage is a broken wrist and a fractured cheekbone. Anna’s wrist is being set now, and we are hopeful that the cheekbone will heal itself. If it doesn’t, then surgery may be needed, although that is quite a small procedure.”

Mary breathed a sigh of relief. Claire waited, knowing that not all the news had been delivered.

“However…”

Mary’s grip on Claire’s hands tightened, squeezing hard.

Doctor Sanderson continued: “... the trauma has resulted in cerebral oedema… brain swelling, which in turn increases the pressure in the skull. What we will have to do is place Anna in an induced coma. This will reduce the electrical activity in her brain and slow down its metabolism, minimising the swelling and inflammation. Once the swelling has reduced, we can slowly bring her out of the coma. That may be in a couple of days, or four or five.”

“Can I see her?” Mary whispered.

“She is being taken to ICU… Intensive Care. When the doctors have finished, you will be able to sit with her, talk to her. But not everyone will be able to go to ICU, just you and one of your friends. Is there anybody else, any family members that you need to contact?

John answered. “We were waiting for the diagnosis. I’ll ring Anna’s parents now.”

Doctor Sanderson nodded. “OK, so if you can wait here a bit longer, I’ll come and take you to her in a bit.”

Now it was John’s turn to take charge of the situation.

“Right, we can’t all stay here. They won’t let more than two of us sit with her. I suggest that I will stay here with Mary and, Jamie, if you could drive Claire home?”

Claire spoke to Mary. “Are you happy with that? John will stay. Later on we can sort out who comes to visit and when.”

Mary nodded and finally let go of Claire’s hands.

*************
The sun was setting as Jamie and Claire drove back to Glasgow. At first, neither of them felt inclined to speak. Polite conversation seemed inappropriate and the gulf between them, forged by eight years apart, was too wide to enable them to engage in any serious discussions about their emotions and experiences of the day.

***********
Nine years ago

“Jamie, I’m sorry to wake you. I know it’s...Oh god...it’s 3:30… I just needed someone to talk to. It’s been such a shitty day.”

“Aye, I’m here. Are ye ok? Talk tae me… tell me all about it.”

“Jamie, thank you.”

“Fer what?”

“I don’t know… for being there, for letting me talk… for listening.”

“Always, Sassenach… always.”

********
Eventually, Jamie broke the silence. “Ye’re a doctor. Tell me. How bad is it?”

Claire hesitated. There had always been honesty between them, but she was unsure how deep his affection for Anna was, how much he actually wanted to hear. She decided on truth.

“Honestly, Jamie, I’m not sure. Anna’s very lucky that there’s no damage to her back or legs. The worry is the brain oedema. They must consider it serious to have decided to put her in a coma, there are other less radical treatments. But, then again, I’m not a neurologist. When Mary and her parents talk with the neurologist, they should have a clearer picture. The coma may only be for a matter of days, or…” Her voice tailed off.

She looked over at Jamie, his eyes fixed on the road ahead, his jaw firmly clenched. “I canna help but feel responsible. If only she’d taken ma arm, let me help her down those stairs. I kent she’d need help with those silly wee boots of hers…”

“Jamie, it’s not your fault. You did warn her, told her to wait and you’d help her. Don’t be blaming yourself.”

Jamie sighed as silence filled the car once more.

The darkness of the country roads began to give way to the lights of Glasgow’s suburbs and then the familiar streets leading to Claire’s flat. Jamie pulled up outside the front door.

“Well, thanks for the lift, Jamie…” Claire began.

“I’m sorry about this, but I’m driving up tae Lallybroch and I'm burstin’ fer the loo. Any chance I could jes’ pop up tae yers and use the facilities?”

“Of course.”

Jamie switched the engine off and together they climbed out of the car and made their way to Claire’s flat.

Chapter Text

I know it's late, I know you're weary
I know your plans don't include me
Still here we are, both of us lonely
Longing for shelter from all that we see
Why should we worry, no one will care girl
Look at the stars so far away
We've got tonight, who needs tomorrow?
We've got tonight babe
Why don't you stay?

.
Bob Seger

 

Neither of them spoke as they climbed the stairs to Claire’s flat. She fumbled with the keys, trying to unlock the door. Eventually, she succeeded and opened the door.

“Second on the right,” she indicated and Jamie gratefully entered the bathroom.

Claire stood in the hallway, unsure what to do. She couldn’t loiter there waiting for him to come out, that was just odd. But if she moved into the kitchen or living room, did that make it look as though she was inviting him in further? She decided that a compromise was the solution; she moved to lean against the living room door frame -- not hovering, just casually standing, ready to escort Jamie to the front door.

Nothing about the day seemed real. Claire wasn’t given to flights of fancy but she felt as if she had stepped into an alternate universe, with Anna unconscious in a hospital bed and Jamie in her flat. Tomorrow she would wake up and everything would be back to normal. She closed her eyes, trying to rid herself of this feeling of disconnect.

A cough next to her roused her from her contemplations. She opened her eyes to find Jamie standing beside her.

“Weel, thanks fer the use of the facilities. I’d better be on ma way.”

“Not at all. Have a safe journ…” Claire began but was interrupted by a loud rumble from the depths of Jamie’s stomach.

He blushed slightly. “Och, I’m sorry about that. Been a long time since that wee mouthful at lunch.”

“You can’t drive for hours on an empty stomach.”

“It’s nae bother, I can stop on the way.”

Claire started to speak then hesitated before carrying on. “Look… you’re more than welcome to have a bite here before you go. I was just going to see what was in the fridge, do myself some cheese on toast or an omelette.”

“I dinna want tae intrude.”

“You’re not intruding. I think we both agree it’s been a pretty weird day… having a bit of food together isn’t going to matter much, is it?”

“Weel, ok. That’s verra kind of ye. Thank ye.”

Claire strode purposefully into the kitchen, Jamie following. She opened the fridge door and stared at the contents, planning what she could make.
*******
Nine years ago

“And that’s it? That’s all ye have in yer fridge?”

“Well, I have my lunch at the hospital, and Lamb has his at the university. All we need in the evening is a sandwich or some cereal and a cup of tea.”

“So yer fridge has... four pints of milk... a tub of ‘Utterly Butterly’... two packs of ‘Dairylea’ cheese spread… a jar of honey and two grapefruits.”

“And the beetroot, don’t forget the beetroot.”

“Oh, aye, and a jar of homemade pickled beetroot made, according tae the label, by a ‘Mrs. Fitz’ in 2006. So I take it that ye dinna cook?”

“Never, apart from sausages on a campfire.”

“Ah, Sassenach, I bet ye burnt them, too.”

***********
Jamie peered over her shoulder at the fully laden shelves of the fridge.

“Wow!” he exclaimed automatically.

Claire turned around, her arms full. “What?”

“Ye can cook now?” Jamie asked incredulously.

“Yes, I can and very well.” Claire replied, slightly sharply. The unspoken message was clear. Their past ended eight years ago, she had changed from the person he knew then.

Her tone softened. “Omelette with tomato, spinach and goat’s cheese do you?”

Jamie watched as Claire efficiently prepared the food, chopping vegetables, beating eggs, popping a baguette in the oven. While the butter was melting in the frying pan, she extracted a bottle of wine from the fridge and poured herself a glass.

“I’m sorry, I know you’re driving, but I just feel the need for a glass tonight. What would you like to drink?”

“Just half a glass would be fine, thank ye.”

They sat and ate together at the kitchen table, as they had so many times in the past. Conversation was stilted at first, both trying desperately to avoid any awkward ‘do-you-remember’ moments. Both remembered everything, but were fearful that the time apart had erased the other's memories.

They spoke about Anna’s injuries (there was no change according to John’s latest text) before moving onto Jenny and her growing family, Lamb’s current predicament and Brian’s recovery. They didn’t dare speak about their respective careers that caused the break eight years before.

With a fully satisfied stomach, Jamie rose from the table. “That was grand. Ye’re a fine cook, Claire. And now I’d best be on ma way.”

“Of course, I’ll see you out.”

Together they walked to the front door. As Claire reached for the handle, Jamie turned to her.

“Thank ye once again for dinner, Sassen...” he began then stopped. He took a step closer and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Claire’s hand fell from the handle to rest inert at her side. His mouth brushed her lips before pulling away.

“I’m sorry. I didna mean tae…”

“No, that’s ok…” Claire looked down as she spoke, unable to meet his eyes. The feeling of being stranded in this alternate universe suddenly engulfed her. “It’s been such a strange day, so unreal. I suppose we don’t really know what we’re doing…”

“Ah, but I think I do.” Jamie whispered as he placed his fingertips under Claire’s chin, pushing it up, trying to force Claire to look him in the eyes. Still unable to meet his gaze, she closed her eyes, feeling his warm breath against her cheek. His mouth against her lips was tentative, gentle, asking a question. He withdrew, waiting for the answer.

“Jamie, I…” Claire stopped, unsure what she wanted to say. Did she want to tell him to go and pretend this hadn’t happened… or… or…?

And then, with a reflex action, unplanned by her logical brain… her hand lifted to stroke his auburn curls. Finally, she looked into his eyes, those same azure eyes, a few faint lines now present at the corners. Her body responded automatically… his scent, his touch, his taste long remembered by her subconscious mind.

Her hand moved from his curls to the back of his neck, bringing his head down to hers. This time it was Claire who initiated the kiss, no longer tentative, but hard and needy, forcing his lips apart with her tongue.

Claire’s moan of pleasure as she deepened the kiss sent a message to Jamie’s groin. He took a step forward, pushing Claire into the wall. He broke from the kiss and frantically began to fumble with the buttons on her shirt, his breathing becoming ragged. The shirt finally open, Jamie tugged it off Claire’s shoulders before bending to her breasts. The glow of the light from the living room illuminated their creamy whiteness, contrasting starkly with the black cotton bra. His mouth tended to each breast in turn, relishing the feel of each nipple hardening through the smooth fabric.

Claire leant her head back against the wall. Her hands were in Jamie’s hair keeping his head pressed against her chest. She felt too weak to stand, all her energy was being drained, channelled to that spark igniting at her very core. She would collapse, melt in a heap at any moment.

Pulling at his hair, Claire forced Jamie’s face up to meet hers.

“Jamie, wait...”

His eyes showed his confusion. “I thought this was what ye wanted?”

“Yes… move to the bedroom?”

With no need for a response, Claire led the way, discarding her shirt on the floor. Behind her, she felt Jamie fumble at her back before her bra fell down her arms. Warm hands enveloped her breasts. His hips pushed against her bottom, his arousal insistent through his jeans.

Laughing, they fell on the bed, Jamie landing on Claire’s back. He rolled off quickly as she turned over. She watched through half closed eyes as Jamie’s hand returned to her breasts, running his fingers around each nipple in turn before slowly tracing a path down to her jeans.

Claire raised her hips to assist Jamie as he unzipped and eased them down her legs. His hands remembered where to touch Claire, how to encourage those noises she would make. Instinctively, he let his hands roam over the smooth skin of her inner thighs and was rewarded with a soft sigh. His tongue, swirling in her navel as he pushed her pink cotton briefs down, was rewarded with a louder moan.

He pulled away, suddenly desperate to study her now naked body, looking for how she had changed, how she was still the same.

Claire opened her eyes fully and looked questioningly at him. “What?”

His hand returned to the soft skin of her thighs, fingers seeking out her very core. “I want tae watch yer face when I do this… and this…”

Claire bit her lower lip as Jamie’s fingers continued their exploration. Her hands stroked his chest through his sweatshirt.

“Jamie, you’ve too much on. I want to see you.”

Grinning, he sat up and quickly shed his clothes before lying back next to Claire. Now it was her turn to study his naked body. She knelt beside him as she let her fingernails gently rake down his chest and abdomen to his legs, deliberately avoiding his obvious arousal.

Jamie shifted his hips. “Claire… Sassenach,” he moaned. “Ye tease.”

Claire brought her face up to his. “What?” She asked with mock innocence. “I just wanted to make you go all goosebump-y.” She licked her tongue neatly around his lips before continuing a path down his neck and onto his chest, butterfly kisses marking her progress.

“I remember the way you smell, your taste.” Her voice was muffled as her mouth moved down Jamie’s body, finally reaching his erection.

As he felt the yielding softness of Claire’s mouth envelop his hardness, he moaned, his hands moving to Claire’s hair. “Oh, god… so good…”

He wanted to make this moment last forever. Reluctantly he pulled her head up to his once more.

“Oh…” Claire sounded disappointed. “I thought you wanted...”

“I did... I do… but I dinna think I can last too long and I want to be inside ye, now. I want tae watch ye come, I want tae caress yer boobs and make ye moan. I havena forgotten all yer wee noises. Will ye make them fer me now, Sassenach?”

Placing her hands on his chest, she straddled him. “Do it now… and don’t be gentle.” she whispered.

Jamie needed no second bidding. Reaching down, he positioned himself as Claire pressed down. She sighed, relishing the feeling of fullness. Paying no heed to her tired leg muscles, Claire set the pace, tantalisingly slow at first.

“Oh, god… faster…” Jamie cried. “Faster… yes… that’s it.”

One hand came up to her breast, while the other stroked between her legs. She threw her head back as he pinched her nipple.

“Oh yes, Jamie, that’s what I like…”

“No… look at me… look at me, Sassenach.”

Their eyes locked as together they climbed to their peak, their triumphant cries in unison as they came. Her breathing slowly returned to normal as Claire collapsed onto Jamie’s chest, now covered in a light sheen of sweat. Still joined, she idly toyed with the copper hairs on his chest.

“You have more hairs on your chest than you used to.”

Jamie kissed the top of her head. “After eight years, this is your number one thought?”

“What should it be?”

“I don’t know… that it was amazing?”

He could feel Claire chuckle. “Hmm… that too. Here’s another thought… today has been the weirdest day. Nothing feels quite real about it… like an alternate universe.”

Claire moved to lie down beside Jamie. As she turned onto her side, she pulled his hand round to her breast.

“Spoon me,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

I’m lying alone with my head on the phone
Thinking of you till it hurts
I know you hurt too but what else can we do
Tormented and torn apart
Clive J. Davis / Graham Russell

Claire awoke with an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. The events of the previous day came rushing back to her. She moved her hand behind her and made contact with a body… a warm body… a very warm body sporting ‘morning wood’. She snatched her hand back and quickly scrambled out of bed, muttering “shower” under her breath.

As the warm water soothed her body, she let her mind process the last twenty four hours, in particular the previous night. Although she had been gripped by a sense of unreality since Anna’s accident, that really had been no excuse for her actions. And to confuse matters even more, Jamie’s behaviour towards her had undergone a complete sea change, from his curt and abrupt manner to, well, an active and somewhat vocal participant in last night’s exertions. Claire could only assume that, due to a growing affection for Anna, and with some sort of convoluted male justification, Jamie had used sex as a distraction from his thoughts of Anna, seeking the comfort of a long familiar body.

Indeed, she told herself, he was probably lying in her bed working out how to ‘let her down gently’. Otherwise, she was sure, he would be climbing into this shower with her right now.

*********
Nine Years Ago

“Jamie, what are you doing?”

“What does it look like? I'm getting in the shower too.”

“But this shower is tiny, there’s hardly room for me.”

“Well then, Sassenach, I guess we’ll just have tae squeeze closer together… Aye, that’s it. This is my fantasy, ye ken. I jes’ love ye in the shower when every bit of ye is soakin’ wet… every... single... bit.”

“Jamie… ooh… and what happens next in your fantasy?”

“Weel, I press ye against this wall… and I bring yer legs around me… aye… and then…”

“Wow, oh wow. So, Jamie, will this happen every time I have a shower?”

“Aye, every time. Ye can count on it.”

*******
Jamie stretched and listened to the sound of the shower coming from the bathroom. Last night had not been planned, a mutually spontaneous decision, but none the worse for that. He pictured Claire now in the shower, all slippery and wet, and felt himself grow hard. There was an obvious remedy for that next door. Jamie started to climb out of bed, halted only by the ping of Claire’s phone on the bedside table. He hesitated before glancing at the message notification.

Frank: can’t wait to see you tonight, darling. Pick you up at 7:30. I have a special surprise for you xx

And that was it, they were back to reality. Frank was Claire's reality. Last night was nothing more than Claire’s response to a surreal day. In fact, hadn’t she said that to him, how none of it felt real? And so he would have to accept the reality, forget that last night ever happened and let Claire move forward with her life… with Frank.

Jamie quickly gathered up his clothes and got dressed. There was no point in prolonging the inevitable.

*******
Claire put the lid down, sat on the toilet seat and tried to think practically about the situation. Last night had obviously just been the pair of them seeking some comfort with a familiar body. Nothing more than that. Forget about the metaphorical fireworks exploding, forget about the most satisfying orgasm she had experienced in, well, eight years, forget about their bodies instinctively coming together, forget about…

“Shit! Shit, shit, shit.” Claire jumped up and grabbed her bathrobe. There was one thing she had forgotten about. She definitely had an unscheduled stop before work.

Claire left the bathroom at the same time as Jamie, now fully dressed, emerged from the bedroom. They stood together in the hall, slightly awkwardly.

“Do you want…”

“Well, I’d better…”

They both spoke at the same time. Claire tied the belt on her bath robe a bit tighter and tried to keep her eyes averted from her shirt and bra still lying, discarded, on the carpet.

“You’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of you.”

“Aye, best be headin’. Er… weel, thanks… er, bye then. I’ll keep ye posted if I hear any news.” Jamie brushed his lips against Claire’s cheek.

“Bye, Jamie.”

Claire unlocked the front door and let Jamie out. Through the spy hole she watched him disappear from view, before closing her eyes and sinking to the floor as she thought about the day ahead.

First stop, she decided, had to be the chemist. Claire couldn’t believe how irresponsible she… they... had been last night -- no contraception. Jamie had probably assumed, Claire reasoned, that she was still on the pill. The truth was that her relationships over the past eight years, whilst some had been of a sexual nature, had not been long enough, or serious enough to convince her to return to that method of contraception.

And her last sexual relationship had been a while ago. There were no handy condoms lurking in her bedside cabinet. Claire had never been prepared for one night stands. She didn’t go in for one night stands… usually.

So, the ‘morning after’ pill it was then. Claire grimaced. She was a mature, medical professional and had acted like some horny teenager with no thought for consequences.

As she made to get up from the floor, another thought struck her… Frank. This was quickly followed by the realisation that it had taken her hours to actually think about him. That wasn’t good. Maybe a perfect match was out there waiting for Claire, but she had just proved to herself that it definitely wasn’t Frank.

******
The roads were remarkably quiet as Jamie made his way up to Lallybroch. He knew his father would make no comment about his somewhat late arrival. He would automatically assume that Jamie had stayed with either Murtagh or John.

The worst thing he could do, Jamie told himself, was to keep thinking about Claire and last night… or about Claire and her future. But it wasn't just his imagination, last night had been special. The way their bodies had come together, instinctively, no thought required. No thought for anything. Jamie automatically slammed on the brakes. Certainly no thought for contraception. Shit! He hoped Claire was on the pill. How could he not have asked? And what must she be thinking of him now?

******

Claire sat at her desk, trying to dictate patient letters, without much success. Instead, her mind kept focusing on her date with Frank that evening. He had said, in his text, that he had a surprise for her. Well, probably not as big a surprise as she had in store for him.

Claire shook her head. That thought really wasn't fair to Frank. He was a nice man, just not the right man. And she knew what she had to do… tonight, when he came to pick her up. She would have to tell him then.

**************

As soon as Claire arrived home from work, she hurried to her bedroom and stripped her bed. Fresh sheets, she decided, smelling of soap powder and oriental blossom fabric conditioner would undoubtedly help to diminish the memory of the previous night. Without thinking, she reached for a pillowcase and inhaled the lingering aroma of Jamie’s cologne, unchanged for eight years.
**********

Nine years ago

“Are ye sniffing me, Sassenach? Do I reek, have I forgotten tae put deodorant on?”

“No, just the opposite. Are you using a new aftershave?”

“Aye, Jenny brought me back a bottle duty free from her holidays. Tom Ford, apparently. Do ye like it?”

“Oh, yes. It’s lovely. Let me have another sniff… ooh... Makes me feel all sorts of things… it’s quite a turn-on.”

“Ah, yer breath is tickling my neck. Ye’re giving me goosebumps… what are ye doin’ now, Sassenach?... I’ve no’ put any aftershave down there… A Dhia… Sassenach… I’ll always use this now.”

*******

Quickly, Claire threw the pillowcase into the laundry basket and carried on remaking the bed. Her phone pinged and she paused to check her messages. There was one from John and she eagerly read it:

Doctor pleased with progress. Swelling reduced. Hopefully will start to bring out of coma over the next few days. Relieved or what? Mary and her parents doing ok. She says thanks for the messages. See you soon. John

Once the bed was made to Claire’s satisfaction, she prepared a cup of coffee and sat, waiting for Frank. There was no need to change out of her work clothes, she intended to tell Frank as soon as he arrived. There was no use in prolonging the inevitable.

Exactly at 7:30 p.m., the intercom buzzed, announcing the arrival of Frank. Claire let him in and waited at her front door.

“Good evening, darling.” Frank leaned in to kiss her as Claire moved her head. His lips made light contact with her cheek.

He looked puzzled as he pulled away, taking in her somewhat creased attire and wayward curls. “Long day? Have you just got back from the hospital? You'd better get a move on.”

He carried on talking as they walked into the living room. “I made a reservation for 8 o’clock. And, you’ll never guess, I found a restaurant, here in Glasgow, that is authentic Turkish Black Sea cuisine. Just like your trips with Lamb. I remember you telling me about eating Muhlama and laz böreği for the first time. So I thought I’d surprise you, a trip down memory lane, Claire. We could spend the evening with your reminiscences. But hurry, I’ll wait here.”

Claire watched Frank as he spoke, wincing inwardly at the over-pronunciation of the Turkish words. She made no move to go and change, but sat on the sofa and indicated that he should sit too.

Claire hesitated for a moment. Was this really what she wanted to do? Frank was rational, discreet, polished -- a true adult, seemingly not prone to any stubbornness or petulance. But, she realised, there were never any unguarded moments of excitement, no real emotions, no careless words spoken. He seemed too generally agreeable.

Another man appeared, unbidden, in her mind -- certainly more stubborn and petulant, irrational at times but filled with warmth and sincerity. Claire forced that image away and spoke.

“Frank, Thank you for thinking about me… with the restaurant choice, but I need to talk to you. I’m sorry, there’s no easy way to say this, but I think we should… er… stop seeing each other.”

Frank made a move to interrupt.

“Please, Frank, let me finish. I know it sounds like a cliché, but truly, it’s not you. I thought I was ready for a relationship, but I’m not. I know I’m not and it’s best to stop now before it goes further. I don’t want to hurt you any more.”

Claire watched Frank as he thought about this. His arm rested on the sofa. Claire noticed his hand tightly digging into the fabric momentarily before relaxing. He refused to look at Claire, his gaze was over her shoulder, focussed on the eclectic mix of photographs on the wall.

“Is there someone else?”

Claire barely hesitated before lying. “Frank, this isn’t about anyone else. There is no one else. It’s just about me.”

“Well… I’m… what can I say? I thought this was going somewhere. I really did. Can’t we try? Take it slowly, maybe… let a relationship grow.”

“I’m sorry, really I am, Frank, but I can’t do that. I can’t pretend this is going somewhere. And it’s not you. I’m not in the right place for a relationship. I can’t tell you how bad I feel but… well…” Claire repeated the familiar clichés.

Frank stood up. “If that’s how you feel, Claire, there’s nothing more I can say. Please sleep on it. If you change your mind, you have my number, ring me. I was in this for the long haul, I thought you were too.”

Together they walked to the front door. As Claire’s hand reached for the handle, Frank turned to her. “I don’t know what happened to you in the past, Claire, but it’s closed you off, you always seem so self contained. You need to open up to possibilities. I felt this every time we were together, you were always holding back, always reticent. You have to move forward… whatever it is, you need to let go.”

Chapter Text

Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue
Honesty is hardly ever heard
And mostly what I need from you

Billy Joel

The first thing Claire noticed as she and John entered the private hospital room was the sheer number of cards, fruit baskets and balloons covering practically every surface. The second was that a bunch of flowers was currently being held, rather sheepishly, by Jamie. He shuffled his feet a bit and muttered a greeting to John and Claire.

Anna appeared to be well on the mend. Although still wired up to various machines, with her arm in plaster and a large bandage covering part of her cheek, she looked more like a lady entertaining in her boudoir, rather than having been involved in a potentially fatal accident.

Her speech, however, presented a different picture. Her voice was weak, hesitant, stumbling over words.

“Hello,” she rasped, her voice quiet. “Look… at the flowers… Jamie has bought me… not allowed.”

Claire smiled. “I know, they’re glorious. Hydrangeas, aren’t they? But, you’re right, they’re not allowed in the room. Infection prevention.”

Jamie smiled and finally looked at Claire. “Aye, I was told hydrangeas. I dinna really ken, I’m no’ too good with the flowers… or when to give them… apparently.”

************
Nine years ago

“Why do you never buy me flowers, Jamie?”

“I dinna ken… it’s like flowers are fer when ye’re trying tae make an impression, when ye dinna ken where ye stand or it’s fer an occasion. But us, Sassenach, do we need flowers? Would that make a difference tae us… tae how ye feel about me?”

“I guess not.”

“But, Sassenach, If flowers are important tae ye, I’ll remember that, I’ll bring ye flowers.”

“No, Jamie, there’s no need, honestly. You’re right.

“Anyways, I dinna need flowers tae show ye how I feel about ye. I can tell ye… I can tell ye all the time. In fact I’ll never stop telling ye what ye mean tae me, Claire Beauchamp.”
************

“Mary’s jes’ gone tae get a cup of tea,” Jamie continued. “I believe she’s comin’ back down the road with ye. Mebbe she can take the flowers home.”

“Yes, that’s right.” John responded, while Claire pulled up a chair and sat next to Anna, lifting her arm and forensically examining the plaster. “Anna’s making such good progress, Mary feels confident to actually go home for a bit.”

“She needs… sleep... and rest.” Anna whispered.

“I agree. Mrs. Crook has been baking like a maniac ready for her arrival back home. And she’s not forgotten you either, Anna.” Claire dived into her bag and brought out several large Tupperware boxes. “Chocolate brownies and chocolate chip shortbread. I’m sure if you don’t want them, the nurses and doctors will be keen to take them off your hands. Especially the night shift, they’re always desperate for sweet treats to keep them going.”

“Ah, I’d better be heading meself. I jes’ dropped in on ma way tae visit with Murtagh and Jocasta. Look after yerself, Anna. Good tae see ye lookin’ so bright. Quite like yer old self. And sorry about the flowers. I’ll make sure tae give ye some when ye come home.” Jamie bent down and kissed Anna’s cheek.

Claire busied herself rearranging the items on the bedside table.

“Claire, John. Bye fer now. John, I’ll be in touch about goin’ fer that drink.”

**********
Claire let Mary sit in the front seat of John’s Mini on the way back to Glasgow. Rearranging her legs to fit somehow in the small space available, she closed her eyes and let the conversation drift over her.

“Anna is doing remarkably well,” John remarked.

“I know.” Mary sounded tired but elated. “Mummy and Daddy felt confident enough to go home for a couple of days. Doctors are all so pleased with her progress. We’ll all be back to see her moved into the rehab ward. Then that’s one step closer to her coming home.”

“It was nice of Jamie to come to see Anna,” Mary added, looking at the large bunch of flowers in her lap.

“He feels in some way responsible, you know, for the accident.” John kept his eyes on the road. “He thinks he should have gone down the stairs in front, made her hold onto him. He was upset when I spoke to him the next day… quite agitated.”

Claire tried to keep her breathing steady as she felt her stomach lurch at John’s statement. So, added to Jamie’s feelings of responsibility for the accident, there would also be his guilt at their night together, no doubt viewed by Jamie as a betrayal of Anna. Little wonder he sounded agitated to John.

Unbidden, the memories of that night crowded Claire’s mind… their bodies instinctively seeking comfort together, rekindling long remembered sensations and emotions...

You have to move forward… whatever it is, you need to let go.” Claire remembered Frank’s parting words and realised he was right. She knew she had to move forward. She realised that would never happen here in Glasgow. Jamie would be there, maybe just around this corner, perhaps sitting in that coffee shop, always on the periphery of her mind. While there was a chance she could meet him, talk to him, reach out and touch him, she would never be able to let go. And if… when… she saw him in a relationship, she knew that would be more than she could bear.

Over the years, Claire had been approached by other hospitals, keen to appoint a surgeon of her calibre. She had a network of contacts forged through medical conferences and online professional discussions. There would be opportunities for her in other cities, perhaps in England or perhaps, ironically, it would be her turn to move abroad. She had to take action and make that break.

*************
Claire lightly knocked on the door to Mrs. Fitz’s office. When she heard no answer, she opened the door and stepped inside. Mrs. Fitz was clearly in work, her coat was neatly hanging behind the door, her shopping bag lined up next to her desk. She knew she should have called first, rather than just dropping by unannounced, but she really wanted to talk to Mrs. Fitz and discuss the possibility of moving away.

Claire turned around and started to leave when she heard a noise from her Uncle’s office next door.

“Mrs. Fitz… Uncle… hello?”

She moved to the door connecting the two offices and paused, waiting for a response. The office was silent.

Claire pushed the door open and looked into Lamb’s office.

A young woman was standing next to her uncle’s desk, a small clay pot in her hands. She placed the pot on the pile of papers next to her and smiled at Claire.

“Hi, I’m Malva. Professor Beauchamp’s grad student.”

“Hello, Malva. I’m Professor Beauchamp’s niece, Claire.”

Malva smiled. “Oh, I’ve heard a lot about you. Your uncle is verra proud of you.”

Claire returned the smile politely and looked around, a little bit surprised that Malva was here in Lamb’s office on her own. “Is Mrs. Fitz here, or my uncle?”

“No, I think Mrs. Fitz has gone over to the Finance department and the prof is in the library… er... I’m...er... here tae find a chapter of ma dissertation. He’s been… er… proofreading it fer me, red pen, that kind of thing. I thought he’d left it on his desk, but… er... I canna seem to find it. Ah, well, never mind, I’ll have tae wait ‘til I see him later.”

Malva started to walk towards Claire, still in the doorway, encouraging Claire to turn and leave. Claire made to step back into Mrs. Fitz’s office, but hesitated. Something in Malva’s manner did not seem quite right… the reason for her being there was a bit flimsy… and she was a little too keen to shepherd Claire out of the way. Malva’s eyes flicked instinctively to the corner of the office, hidden from Claire’s view by the door.

Claire caught the glance and stepped fully into Lamb’s office, shutting the door behind her. As she looked around the room, Malva took advantage and slipped out through the same door. The door behind which someone had been standing, hiding. Someone who Claire recognised instantly… Frank.

“Claire,” he began warmly. “How nice to see you, and what a surprise you showing up now.”

“Why a surprise? He’s my uncle. I do like to visit him, you know. What are you doing here?”

“Well, I just came over from my office to see him too, but his grad student… Mar… Mel…”

“Malva.”

“Yes, right, good, she told me that he was not here. I was just about to go, when you arrived and… er… I got caught behind the door.”

“So you weren’t hiding, then?”

“Hiding? No… really… why would I do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you didn’t want to see me, after how we left things.”

Was it Claire’s imagination, or did a small sigh of relief escape Frank’s lips? She moved over to the large, battered desk in the middle of the room and leant against it. Her fingers traced over the familiar artefacts sitting on the desk, accumulated over years of travel - the blue evil eye amulet, the copper coffee beaker, the intricately carved wooden box. She paused and looked at the box, where Lamb kept the keys to his filing cabinets and cupboards. It was empty.

Claire looked across at Frank, noticing, for the first time, the document wallet and notebook clutched to his side.

“Frank, what are you really doing here?”

“I borrowed some articles from your uncle… er… I was just returning them.” He lifted the document wallet slightly.

Claire held out her hand. “Well, I can give them back to him… you could have left them with Mrs. Fitz, or Malva. You didn’t have to come into his office.”

Frank hesitated. “That’s ok. I can come back when he’s around.”

“What’s the problem, Frank? Don’t you trust me to give them to him?”

An idea started to form in her head. “Uncle Lamb didn’t lend you anything, did he?”

Frank gave no reply.

“You were here uninvited, going through his stuff. Years and years of research material.”

“No, I…”

“Your book… you’ve never done any field work. You told me so yourself. Are you thinking you can use someone else’s hard work and dedication? Pass it off as your own? Plagiarise?”

“I would never… please...”

“And Malva agreed to help you. What for? Co-credit on the book?”

Claire’s stomach lurched unpleasantly as another thought crept into her mind. “Did you know who I was at that party? You said you recognised me. Is that why you went out with me?”

“Claire, please believe me… I did recognise you, but that’s not why I came to talk to you…” Frank held his hands out to Claire. “I wanted to, still want to, go out with you.”

“All that interest in my growing up with Lamb, places I’d visited with him… was that all for your book?” Claire kept her voice low, controlled. Her anger at being used was there, just below the surface but kept in check. “Tell me the truth, Frank. I want honesty.”

“No, Claire, I wanted to learn about you. You’re a fascinating woman. I thought we could have had something special. Still think that, too.” Frank took a step closer to Claire.

“So you weren’t going to use any of what I told you in your book?”

Frank hesitated for a second before responding. “No, it was just about you.”

“Why do I not believe you, Frank? You wanted to get to Lamb’s research through me, and when that didn’t happen you started working with Malva. I’m sure she was keen to be involved with a potential author. May be even television? Is that what you promised her?”

“I…”

“Spare me any excuses. I really can’t be bothered listening to you any more.”

Claire moved to the door and held her hand out. “Document wallet and notebook, please.”

With some reluctance, he deposited them in her hand. “The sad thing is, Frank, if you’d have gone directly to my uncle, I’m sure he would have listened, offered to help you. Instead you sneak about in an underhanded way. Don’t worry, I’ll let him know exactly what’s gone on, as well as Malva’s role in this.”

Claire’s stood and waited as Frank stepped out of the office. “Goodbye Frank”.

Chapter Text

Oh, Doctor, doctor, can't you see I'm burning, burning
Oh, Doctor, doctor, is this love I'm feeling?
Ships at night give such delight
We all leave before the morning light
Please don't go no please don't go
Cause I don't want to stay here on my own

Tom Bailey, Alannah Currie, Joe Leeway

Claire rubbed her eyes and stretched, contemplating yet another cup of coffee. Her eyes were tired from staring at her laptop screen for hours, studying the data and reading about hospitals in Manchester, Birmingham, Chicago and Melbourne. All had potential opportunities suitable for her, she just had to be willing to make that leap.
***********

Eight Years Ago

“Do ye ever think about moving away, tae another country?”

“Not really. Everything I want… need… love is here.”

“And what’s that, then?”

“My medical training… my uncle… and you, my heart. Why, do you?”

“It’s a big old world out there, Sassenach. Lots tae see. But I canna imagine settling down anywhere but Scotland… I love ye, Sassenach. I want ye with me always.Ye ken that… and I ken I always will.”

*****
She hadn’t yet spoken to her uncle about leaving. She’d already had to deliver one piece of bad news -- the duplicity of Malva and Frank. She was waiting for that to be fully digested before talking to him about moving away.

Although, to be honest, Lamb had taken that news better than she had expected. Malva’s approach to academic research had always been at odds with his own more traditional style. Even though he disliked any personal confrontation with his students, Mrs. Fitz had encouraged Lamb to have a ‘chat’ with her, suggesting that perhaps Malva might be better suited working with another member of the faculty -- Dr. Randall, for example, who, although lacking in field research experience, may share the same ‘values’ as she.

According to Mrs. Fitz, the conversation with Dr. Randall had been decidedly more serious. Whilst Lamb may have been open to working collaboratively with him, Frank’s underhanded tactics ensured that now he would never share his research. Lamb had decided, much to Mrs. Fitz’s annoyance, not to report Frank’s behaviour to the university board, not wanting to destroy the younger man’s career. He would, however, Mrs. Fitz was assured, keep a close eye on the publications under the name of Dr. Frank Randall.

A knock at the door roused Claire from her daydreaming. Peering briefly through the keyhole, she let John in.

“Hi, how are you? Fancy a gin and tonic? I’m sure it’s after five somewhere in the world.” Claire headed into the kitchen.

“Sure. Although, after so many years up in Scotland, I’d have thought your taste would run more to whisky. Do you not like it?”

“Well, has to be the right time, right place for me to enjoy a glass.” ...and right person, she added silently.

Claire returned to the living room with the drinks and settled herself next to John on the sofa.

John took a sip before continuing the conversation. “Anna’s coming home tomorrow. Mary just rang to tell me. Her progress has been nothing short of miraculous, apparently. She won’t be going back to work for a few more weeks, but to be in her own bed, in her own home is sure to help her recovery.”

“This gin is lovely, by the way. And with the cucumber… nice touch.” John took another large gulp. “Anyway, Mary said that Anna hopes to see us tomorrow afternoon and she’s got a secret to share with us.”

A fit of coughing from Claire forced John to put his drink down and slap Claire on the back a couple of times. Eventually, the coughing stopped and Claire wiped her eyes.

“Sorry,” she croaked. “Went down the wrong way. Secret, you say?”

“Yes, that’s what Mary said. I’m thinking there’s a man involved. Can’t wait for the goss.”

Claire closed her eyes and tried to keep her breathing calm. Please, no. Not that. Not Jamie and Anna. Could that relationship not wait until she had moved away? Out of sight, out of mind, although that clearly hadn’t worked too well for her in the past.

“So, talking of goss, I met with Frank this week. He said you two aren’t seeing each other any more. That true? He didn’t want to tell me any more about it and I was dying to ask.”

“Yes. He seemed nice enough, but… but... he’s not the man for me. No point in trying to pretend.”

“Well, that’s a shame. I could see you two together, but if there’s no chemistry…?”

John looked at Claire, who shook her head vehemently, her curls flapping over her eyes. She pushed them back impatiently.

“John,” she began hesitantly, wondering how best to phrase this. “There is something else. About Frank, I mean. I know you’re talking to him about a book, but… well... I’ll just say it and then it’s up to you. You know my uncle is an archaeology professor at the university?”

Claire waited for John to respond with a nod before continuing.

“Frank knew that. I think he went out with me to get to Uncle Lamb’s research, for his book.”

“No… he was keen on you, I could tell.”

“After we stopped seeing each other, I found him, hiding in my Uncle's office, notebook in hand, opening cabinets, taking papers. He’d even enlisted Lamb’s grad student in his search.”

Claire felt a wave of embarrassment as she admitted this to John. The thought of being used preyed on her mind, even though Frank had denied that.

“Lamb doesn’t want to take this any further with the university. But I felt I should warn you. When… if… you publish his book, be very careful of the sources, make sure they’re all credited, otherwise, well…”

John took Claire’s hand and stroked it gently. “Thank you for telling me that. It’s a lot to think about. And, irrespective of your uncle, I know Frank was interested in you, Claire Beauchamp, for you. You are a wonderful person. Anyone can see that.”

Claire blinked the tears away as John, with a final affectionate pat of her hand, stood up.

“And on that note, sorry to drink and run, but I’ve got a date tonight and I need to prepare. See you tomorrow afternoon. About three, Mary said.”

John placed his empty glass on the table next to Claire’s laptop. His eyes were unintentionally drawn to the screen, clearly displaying the half composed email from Claire to a colleague in Manchester, enquiring about a recent job advertisement.

“Claire, you’re not thinking of leaving us are you?” John blurted out without thinking. “Er… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to read that, it was accidental, but surely not.”

“I’m looking at possibilities, yes. It may well be time for me to move. Nothing definite yet though. John, please don’t mention this to Anna or Mary, will you?” Claire moved next to John.

“Of course not.” John placed his hands on her shoulders and gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek. “Mum’s the word. And thanks for letting me know about Frank. You’ve definitely given me something to think about… see you tomorrow.”

************
The living room was filled with flowers on every available surface. Claire wondered, as she followed John into the room, which of the elaborate arrangements was from Jamie, but now was not the time to flit from vase to vase trying to read the cards.

Anna greeted Claire warmly as she bent down to kiss Anna’s cheek then settled herself on the sofa next to her.

“Oh, Claire. It’s so good to be home.”

Anna’s voice was stronger now. The cast had been removed from her arm and the injury to her cheek had healed completely without the need for surgery.

“I’ve missed you all so much... I’ve missed proper coffee, I’ve missed Indian takeaways, I’ve missed chilled white wine… watching tv on a decent sized screen… privacy… fresh air. But most of all, I’ve missed my own bed. I’ve been longing to stretch out in a double bed with freshly laundered sheets and…” Anna stopped abruptly.

“Go on, what?” John encouraged, but Anna just shrugged and shook her head.

“I must say, you’re looking really well, Anna.” Claire hastily changed the subject, fearing to hear what, or who, Anna had been longing for.

“That’s always good to hear from a doctor. Second opinion and all that.”

“So you’re no longer under the neurology specialist at Stirling?”

Anna gave a slight chuckle. “No, I’ve been discharged. Transferred to the neurology department here in Glasgow for follow up appointments as an outpatient.”

The clinking of glasses announced the arrival of Mary, precariously balancing a tray of champagne flutes, strawberries, an ice bucket and two bottles of champagne.
*********

Eight years ago

“Jamie, it’s a lovely gesture but what’s the champagne and strawberries for?”

“Do ye no’ remember? It’s our anniversary…”

“But that's next week.”

“Aye, next week is the anniversary of our first date. Tonight is the anniversary of the party where I met ye.”

“So champagne and strawberries next week as well?”

“Mebbe… and then the week after that it’s the anniversary of the first time we… er… spent the night together.”

“Champagne for that too?”

“Nah, I’ve a mind fer another way tae celebrate that altogether. Jes’ ye and me and nae clothes.”

“Mmm, but I think maybe some champagne could come in… er… very handy in that situation.”

“Sassenach, ye’re a wanton woman… I like yer thinking.”

*******
Dropping a strawberry into each glass, Mary passed the champagne bottle to John.

“Can you do the honours, John?”

John quickly removed the foil and wire and efficiently twisted the bottle until, with a slight pop, it was opened.

“It’s so much more dramatic when you pop it with a big flourish and the champagne gushes out,” Anna complained with a sigh.

“Ah, but think of the waste of good…” John consulted the label. “... ‘Veuve Monsigny bottled for Aldi’ champagne, my dear.”

John poured the champagne. “Hang on, there’s five glasses here. Are we expecting someone else?”

“Have you not told them yet, Anna?” Mary handed a glass to Claire and Anna.

Anna shook her head. “I was waiting.”

Claire suddenly felt hot. Beads of sweat began to prickle at the back of her neck, and her stomach seemed to be tying itself in knots. She gazed at her glass, watching the tiny bubbles moving and popping in the pale liquid.

“Waiting for what?” John asked impatiently. “Come on, Anna. Tell us your secret. I’m guessing it’s a chap. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Claire fixed a smile on her face and waited for Anna’s response.

Before Anna could say anything, there was a knock at the front door.

“I can’t believe that. Perfect timing,” Anna laughed. “Mary, would you mind getting that, please?

It only took Mary a few seconds to open the front door, but, to Claire, it seemed like an eternity. As Mary returned with the new arrival, Claire plucked up the courage and looked into the face of… a man she’d never seen before. Straight dark hair, not ginger curls… slim and average height, not tall and broad… a thick dark beard, not neatly trimmed stubble. A wave of relief engulfed her. She let out an audible sigh, unaware she had been holding her breath. John glanced across, puzzled.

Anna slowly got up from the settee and stood next to the newcomer. He put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her to him.

“Everyone, this is Douglas. Douglas, this is John from downstairs and Claire from across the landing… and Mary you know, obviously. Douglas is a doctor in the Neurology department at Stirling.”

Claire stood up and extended her hand. “Douglas, nice to meet you.”

John smiled. “So this is your big secret, Anna? But… er…”

Anna passed a glass to Douglas. “I know what you are thinking, John, but it’s ok. Douglas wasn’t really my doctor and the Neurology department at Stirling have transferred me here. So he’s not involved in anything to do with me. Besides, nothing’s gone on, we’ve only been talking up to now. We’re taking it slow. That's ok, isn’t it, Claire? Douglas won’t get into any trouble?”

“I think you’re pretty safe. He’s not going to be up for misconduct if that’s what you mean. As long as he’s not involved in your treatment.”

**************
Claire lay in bed and thought about the events of the afternoon. Anna looked so healthy… and happy. She believed she’d found her ‘kindred spirit’, as Anne of Green Gables would say. Claire really hoped that was the case. Douglas appeared to be a decent man and was clearly very fond of Anna already. Mary had confided in Claire that, although it didn’t seem to be a case of a vulnerable patient falling for their healer, she would be keeping a ‘watchful eye’ over the relationship just in case.

Sleep was eluding her this evening. Hundreds of thoughts kept crowding into her mind, battling for position… Anna and Douglas… Jamie… Frank and Malva… Uncle Lamb… Jamie… moving away…

Claire rolled over, trying to find a cool spot in the bed.
*********

Nine years ago

“Jamie, it’s February. The heating’s off, you’ve nothing on and you’re still radiating heat like a… a…”

“Radiator? Aye, weel, I’ve always been hot blooded, ye ken. Suppost’s from ma ancestors. If ye have tae sleep in the heather with only yer plaid fer warmth, it helps tae have internal heating.”

“Can I put my… oh that's better.”

“Christ, woman, yer feet are like blocks of ice on me. Why are they so cold?”

“Well, I could wear bed socks. Would you like that?”

“Hmmm… jes’ yer Mickey Mouse bed socks and nothing else?”

“Jamie Fraser, is that turning you on? It is, isn’t it?”

“Come here, Sassenach, I’ll get ye hot all over.”

************
Thoughts of Jamie kept pushing to the forefront of her mind. Claire was sure he would be devastated by the news of Anna and Douglas. She could understand that feeling only too well… how she felt when she thought it would be Jamie and Anna.

Still, one thing was now clear in her mind. She had to get away… before Jamie started a new relationship for real.

Chapter Text

Hello, again, hello
Just called to say hello
I couldn't sleep at all tonight
And I know it's late
I couldn't wait

Neil Diamond, Alan Lindgren

A sense of déjà vu crept over Claire as she scrambled around on the office floor, searching through the piles of papers emptied from her filing cabinet. The one certificate -- her medical degree from Glasgow University -- that she needed for her job applications and she couldn’t find it. Although she now knew exactly where it must be… back in the safe in the loft… at Uncle Lamb’s house.

********
Jocasta opened the front door and welcomed Claire warmly into the house. She led the familiar way into the kitchen.

“Ye’ll have a brew afore ye go and find yer certificate, will ye no’? Murtagh will be in shortly. He’s just planting up some tubs fer the garden.”

Claire gazed out of the window and watched as Murtagh carefully placed a large terracotta pot, full of a riot of brightly coloured pansies, on the ground next to the swing. Instinctively, she gave a slight smile and turned to Jocasta.

“You know, when I came to live here after my parents died, that swing was the first thing that Uncle Lamb gave to me.”

“Ah, I ken it must hold many memories fer ye. Murtagh’s godson, Jamie, reckoned it must be important… tae leave it in the garden, even though it’s no’ been used fer years.” Jocasta glanced across at Claire, who was again turned towards the window.

**********

Eight years ago

“Ye ken, at Lallybroch, I’ll build a swing fer our bairns. Weel, more than one swing. We dinna want them tae be fighting over it. Swings and a seesaw and a wee climbing frame… mebbe a treehouse. There’s an old tree…”

“Wow, Jamie, you have this all planned, don’t you?”

“Aye. Do ye no’ think about these things, about the future?”

“Well, yes, but more generally. I want us to be together, I want to be a qualified surgeon. More than that I hadn’t planned. Who knows what will happen?”

“I ken. We’ll be together at Lallybroch. I’ll always want ye with me.”

**********
Murtagh joined them at the kitchen table as Jocasta poured three mugs of tea and placed the biscuit tin on the table. Murtagh opened it, and after offering it to Claire, helped himself to a couple of chocolate digestives.

He sighed contentedly. “Ah, there’s nothing better in the afternoon than a cup of hot tea and a chocolate biscuit. And nowadays we seem tae have more biscuits in the tin than we used tae, Jocasta?”

“Aye, weel, that’ll be because Jamie’s no’ been here as much as he was. He’s a devil fer all the wee snacks. He can go through ma pantry like a swarm of locusts.”

“Ye’re not wrong. Jamie, he’s ma godson, ye ken,” Murtagh explained to Claire. “He’s been visiting with us a lot, up until fairly recently.”

Claire tried to focus on her mug of tea, desperate not to let any emotion show on her face.

Murtagh continued between mouthfuls of biscuit. “Aye, he was here regular a while back. And I kent there must have been a lass involved tae be driving from Lallybroch so much. But nae more, apparently.”

He paused, brushing a couple of stray biscuit crumbs from his beard and took a swig of tea. “He admitted it last time he was here, that there had been a lass he had his eye on, wanted it tae go further but it wasna any use. She was with someone else and now it’s too late.”

Claire tried to relax and keep her breathing steady. Jocasta watched her out of the corner of her eye.

“And…” Jocasta prompted. “Did Jamie no’ have anything more tae say about it?”

“Weel, here’s the thing. He kent her a long time ago, afore he went tae America. And now he’s back but she’s moving away with a new job. It’s a shame, it’s time he settled down. He needs a good woman...”

“Are ye ok, dear? Ye’ve gone awfa pale.” Jocasta laid a hand gently on Claire’s arm.

“Er, yes… I’ve just… it’s my blood sugar.”

“Aye, of course, that must be it. Have a biscuit, dear, and we can go and get that certificate.”

***********
With the certificate safely in her bag, Claire made her way into the kitchen to say goodbye. Jocasta was still in there, now busy peeling potatoes. Murtagh had returned to the garden to continue the planting.

“Thanks for this. Sorry I had to disturb you. So, goodbye.”

Jocasta wiped her hands on her bright floral apron. “Will ye no’ sit down a minute? I wonder if we could have a wee chat.”

Claire sat down at the table. “Oh, is there a problem with the house?”

“Och no, the house is fine. We love living here. It’s, weel, I hope ye dinna mind me asking, but ye said on the phone ye needed the certificate fer a job. Are ye moving away tae a new hospital?”

“Possibly… er… there may be opportunities elsewhere for me… nothing’s been decided yet… I’m just exploring… you know…” Claire’s voice tailed off as she looked down at her hands, unwilling to let Jocasta see the truth on her face.

“And ye’re no’ planning on leavin’ because of a man?”

Claire shook her head, fighting back tears.

“Claire dear, I’m sure this is none of ma business, but I canna help but ask… is it ye Jamie was talking about? Did ye know each other years ago?”

Claire thought for a moment before answering truthfully. “I did know Jamie before he went to America, but we sort of lost touch. What made you ask?”

“I dinna ken… I suppose it was a few things. The way Jamie reacted when I spoke about moving that swing, the way he somehow kent his way around this house without being shown, the shocked way ye reacted when I mentioned Jamie’s Da. But I’m guessing ye were more than friends?”

Jocasta walked over to the fridge and poured a glass of water. Sitting down, she pushed the glass in front of Claire. “Here ye go. Do ye ken how Jamie feels about ye? Is that why ye’re planning on moving?”

“I thought… I thought… when we met -- by chance -- he was so cold to me. We hadn’t parted on good terms eight years ago. He has become friendlier to me.” She blushed remembering their night together. “But I thought he was keen on our friend Anna and that’s why he wasn’t around so much now that Anna has a boyfriend.”

“Oh, Claire, I dinna think that's the reason at all. Now, if ye are sure ye want tae move away, or if ye have a new man, that’s fine. I only wanted to let ye know what I think… Did I do wrong?”

“No, Jocasta.” Claire now made no attempt to stop the tears from flowing. “You didn’t do wrong."

************
Claire’s patience was beginning to wear thin. So far she had rung John’s mobile half a dozen times. Each time it had gone straight to voicemail. She had left three messages (John, it’s Claire, can you give me a call please… John, call me as soon as you get this… John, I need to talk to you urgently) and left similar messages on text, WhatsApp and Messenger. Finally she had bypassed technology and run downstairs to stick a handwritten message on his front door.

Claire knew that Jocasta would have willingly given her Jamie’s phone number, or that she could simply Google a phone number for the Lallybroch stables. But she wanted to know exactly what John had said to Jamie. Plus, she did not think that she wanted to talk to Jamie over the phone.

She wandered into the kitchen, randomly opening cupboards, not quite sure what she was looking for. Finally, she decided to occupy herself while waiting for John by baking scones from a recipe she knew by heart. Indeed, the recipe was one of the first Claire had used when trying to forget her broken heart eight years ago.

The scones were baking in the oven, their comforting smell filling the flat as she heard a knock at the door. Claire rushed to answer it, almost tripping over a pair of discarded shoes in her haste.

John stood in the doorway, his face etched with worry. “Claire, what’s the matter? I came as soon as I got your note. Did you ring me? I’m sorry, my phone needs charging.”

Claire led him into the living room, suddenly feeling slightly foolish and incredibly over dramatic. This wasn’t a matter of life and death. Or maybe it was… the final death of any lingering dream she may have, forcing her into a new life away from Glasgow.

She indicated for John to sit while she perched on the arm of a chair, too tense to relax.

“I didn’t mean to alarm you, John. It’s just something I need to know. Have you mentioned to anybody my plans to move away?”

“No, why? Has the hospital found out? Are they making it awkward for you? It wouldn’t have come from me. I haven’t told anybody… oh…” John stopped.

“Well, something did slip, but there’s no way it could have got back to the hospital. I was chatting to Jamie a couple of weeks ago, and he was joking about the English emigrating to Scotland and accidentally I may… actually I did… mention that there would be one less English immigrant in this city as, chances are, you are moving away for a new job. But that was it, I swear, I’m sorry. Somebody else must have said something to your bosses, it that’s what this is about.”

A kaleidoscope of butterflies started in Claire’s stomach at John’s confirmation that Jamie knew about her plans. “No, that’s fine,” she reassured John. “I know you haven’t told anyone at the hospital.”

Whilst this was the absolute truth, Claire decided not to elaborate on the real reason for her question and to let John think her issue was with the hospital.

John stood up. “If there’s nothing else, and you’re ok, I need to go. I’ve got loads of reading... work stuff to do.”

Claire pulled nervously at her lip with her fingers. “I would like to ask a favour… but you can say no if you want.” She hesitated before making the decision. “Could I borrow your car today, please? I’ll pay the extra insurance and fill up with petrol. There’s just something I need to do, somewhere I need to go. I’ll bring it back late tonight.”

“Hmm, a Friday evening assignation, hey? Sounds intriguing.”

“John, I promise I will tell you all about it tomorrow. So, what do you say?”

John sighed exaggeratedly and smiled. “You’re on, Claire. Call in on your way out for the keys. I’ll ring the insurance and make the arrangements.”

**********
Claire had set the sat-nav with the address for Lallybroch, but, in reality, that was unnecessary. The route up to the Highlands was as familiar as it ever had been. Some sort of muscle memory took over, her brain automatically recognising where to turn, where to brake, where to give way. This left her free to consider her actions.

Claire prided herself on never making rash decisions, always weighing up all options, and considering all outcomes before taking action. There had been one notable exception, of course, when all rational thought had been discarded as quickly and carelessly as her underwear.

But now, as she drove closer and closer to Lallybroch, she wondered what exactly she was doing. She hadn’t weighed up all options, considered all outcomes. What if Jocasta was wrong? What if it wasn’t her he had been avoiding? What if he wasn’t even at Lallybroch? Claire had been so intent on this grand, dramatic gesture, nothing else had been considered. There was no safety net.

Claire turned off the road and drove slowly along the drive. She passed the turning for the stables and offices and decided to go to the house first. Pulling into a parking space in front of the house, she was relieved to see Jamie’s sports car there. No other cars were around.

She clambered out of the mini and stood clutching her Tupperware box of scones, unsure where to go first. The house looked unchanged, the solid grey stone softened by the purple flowering wisteria climbing up the walls. Her feet crunched on the gravel as she moved closer, but... front door or back door… visitor or family?

She started for the front door as, from the side of the house, she heard footsteps. Suddenly, Jamie came round the corner. He didn’t see her at first, being occupied with his phone. He was not dressed for company -- his black jodhpurs and riding boots were splattered with mud, the pocket of his gilet was torn and his polo shirt was faded with age. Claire thought she had never seen him look so handsome.

Jamie looked up and saw her. There was a moment of silence.

Finally, Claire spoke. “Hello, Jamie.”

Jamie gave a small smile. “Hello.”

Chapter Text

It's not always rainbows and butterflies
It's compromise that moves us along yeah
My heart is full, and my door's always open
You can come anytime you want yeah

Adam Levine, James Valentine

 

The uneasy silence fell once more as Claire and Jamie stood facing each other.

“I’ve brought you some scones.” Claire spoke as she held out the box to Jamie.

Jamie gave a half chuckle as he took the box from Claire. “Seems an awfa long way tae come tae deliver baked goods, but thank ye. Seeing as ye must have been on the road for a while, will ye no’ have a cup of tea? Da’s away today visiting with Jenny.”

Not waiting for a response, he led the way around the side of the house, through the back door and the rear hallway straight into the kitchen.

“Will ye wait here while I jes’ wash up? I’ve been with the horses all day, and I dinna think I smell sae good.”

He put the kettle on to boil and left Claire alone.

The kitchen was just as Claire remembered. She wandered around the room, lightly running her hand over the surfaces. The large wooden table, battered and worn from use by generations of Frasers still dominated the centre of the room. The matching dresser against the wall still held the traditional blue and white Spode dinner service. The kitchen walls were still liberally sprinkled with framed family photos added to over the years. Claire immediately recognised Jamie’s sister, Jenny and her husband, Ian in the photos now joined by a small boy and two girls: a toddler and a baby.

She stood admiring the happy family images and let her mind begin to drift. Was this the sort of family life she could have been part of… could still be part of? She suddenly realised, now that she was here at Lallybroch, she had absolutely no idea what to say to Jamie.

Claire was so engrossed in her thoughts as she gazed at the photographs that she wasn’t aware of Jamie’s return. She turned toward the smell of cedarwood shower gel to find Jamie standing behind her. Now clad in a fresh shirt and jeans, his hair was damp from his quick shower.

“They're a fine looking family, aren’t they? My wee nephew and nieces, Jamie, Maggie and Kitty. And I dinna think Jenny will be stopping any time soon, no matter what Ian has tae say on the matter... She has his heart… he’s happy making her happy.” Jamie paused and cleared his throat. “Now, let me make that brew.”

Claire sat at the table while Jamie pottered around the kitchen, pouring tea, buttering scones. There was no small talk between them, each lost in their own thoughts.

He finally joined her at the table, sitting directly across from her.

“So, why have ye come, Claire? Why now?”

“I spoke with Jocasta. I think… I thought…” she struggled to find the words, still unsure of what to say. The risk of rejection lay like a dark cloud in her mind.

Jamie interrupted, his finger tapping against his mug of tea. He stared intently into it, unwilling to look at Claire.

“I have tae say something tae ye. I canna be quiet any longer. Ye are ma heart. There has never been anyone else but ye. Is this too late? Do ye still have feelings for me? Sassenach, I am yers. In eight years I never forgot ye. I tried… God, I tried… but there has never been anyone else. I ken when we met again I was no’ fair tae ye. I ken I was angry… weak and resentful, but all that time I loved ye. I didna want tae admit it, but I did. I never stopped, Sassenach.”

Finally his eyes met Claire’s. He took a breath and continued. “I ken there’s Frank now and I ken ye’re planning tae move away but is there any way ye can change yer mind? But, if ye tell me no, that’s it, dinna fear, I willna trouble ye again.”

The dark cloud lifted from Claire’s mind. She said nothing but leant forward and took Jamie's hand in her own, her thumb lightly stroking his palm. A smile lit up her face.

“Oh, Jamie, there is no Frank and me. I ended it a few weeks ago. I thought he could make me happy, but he wasn’t the one I wanted to be with. I have been planning to move away, but only because I didn’t want to have to see you in a new relationship. I thought after eight years I could let go but I couldn’t… I can’t. I don’t want to let go, Jamie... I never want to let go.”

And with that, Claire felt all the tension and sadness lift. A wave of happiness swept through her body… as her tears began to flow.

Jamie rushed to Claire’s side, drawing her close to him. She rested her head against his stomach, relishing the feel of his hard muscles against her cheek. His hands stroked her hair gently.

“Dinna cry, Sassenach,” he whispered. “It’s alright. Everything’s as it’s meant tae be.”

Eventually, the tears stopped. A piece of paper towel was thrust in front of her face.

“Blow.” Jamie instructed.

Claire looked up at him and raised her eyebrows suggestively.

Jamie sighed. “I mean yer nose, Sassenach. Although, I may be hoping fer the alternative verra, verra soon…”

Obediently, Claire took the paper towel and blew her nose. He pulled a chair up next to her and sat. Taking her hands in his, he continued talking.

“I think I have another apology tae make tae ye. That night… after Anna’s accident… I’m sorry, I wasna as mindful as I should have been. I assumed ye were on the pill. Actually, that’s no’ right either… it never even crossed ma mind. I didna think about it until the drive home. I’m sorry. Were ye ok?”

“I’m as guilty as you, Jamie. I never thought about it until the morning. But I’m not on the pill, I haven’t been for eight years. I used the morning after pill. And I got tested… all ok.”

“Eight years? But…”

“I’ve had relationships, Jamie, if that’s what you wanted to know, but nothing serious, nothing I wanted to last. What about you?”

“Same as ye. No one special. No one touched ma heart.”

And with that, Jamie closed the small distance between them and kissed her softly on the lips. It was a kiss tender at first but deepened as all the years of longing were let go, all poured into this kiss.

It was Claire who broke away first.

“Jamie.” She tried to get his attention as his mouth shifted to the soft skin behind her earlobe, a long-remembered favourite of hers.

She shivered, but continued. “Jamie, I need to take the car back to John this evening. I promised.”

Jamie raised his head. “Aye, I’ll text him. Ye can take it back in the morning. He’ll understand. Ye will be going nowhere tonight. I want ye in ma bed, naked, all night. We’ve a lot of catching up tae do.”

“But we do need to talk about us.”

“Aye, I ken and we shall. But right now, I want ye so much, I canna wait. So, Sassenach, will ye come tae bed with me?”

Claire got up and started to walk to the door. Pausing briefly in the doorway, she pulled her t-shirt over her head and let it fall to the floor. She looked over her shoulder and smiled coyly as her bra strap slipped down her arm.

“Well, what are you waiting for, then?”

Jamie needed no second invitation.

****************
Claire lay still, totally cocooned in Jamie’s warmth, her spine pressed against his chest, her bottom positioned tight against his hips. His warm breath tickled the back of her neck as his hand casually cupped her breast.

In their haste to make love, the curtains remained open and sunlight streamed into Jamie’s bedroom.

Practically unchanged, and hardly used in eight years, Claire thought back to the last time they were together in this room. Their lovemaking had been rough and passionate, an attempt somehow to heal the rift between them, a respite from the arguments and pleadings. This had been the last time they were together before Jamie flew to America and Claire tried to pick up the pieces of her life here in Scotland.

Jamie shifted slightly. His thumb lazily stroked her nipple, making it stand to attention. He gave a little laugh.

“I ken exactly what ye’re thinking about… the last time ye were here in ma room... The things that were said. I’ve thought about it so much, especially now I’m back… home. And Sassenach, ye were right. I wasna prepared tae compromise. I wanted ye tae give up yer career, yer future and move with me. I wasna thinking about yer feelings. It was all about me. Well, I’ve changed. I’m willing tae compromise. If ye want tae stay in Glasgow, I’ll move tae Glasgow.”

“But how would that work? You came home to manage the stables. But you’d move for me?”

“Aye, I would. I can work with a manager. I’m sure Da would understand.”

“But, if your future is here at Lallybroch, I’d move up here… to Inverness or a private hospital in the area.”

“So we’re going tae argue now about who gets to compromise, are we?” Jamie laughed. “I canna believe it. We can figure it out… together we’ll sort it. However…”

He rolled Claire onto her back as his fingers slowly traced intricate patterns across her breasts and stomach. His eyes never left her face as she closed her eyes and sighed.

“... now is no’ the time fer conversation. All I want tae hear are those wee sounds ye make, that get me so hot...”

Jamie’s mouth now joined his fingers, his tongue circling each nipple in turn.

“... but, if ye do feel the need tae talk,” the rumble of his voice sent vibrations through Claire’s chest. “A few well chosen words of encouragement will never go amiss…”

Claire laughed and pulled his head up to hers. She kissed him firmly on the lips before pushing his head back down her body.

“I ken... exactly... what ye’re after… ye greedy… wee... vixen.” Jamie spoke as he planted a trail of kisses down her body before settling himself between her legs.

Claire moaned and shifted her hips as Jamie’s tongue started its explorations, tantalisingly slowly at first.

“Oh… yes... Jamie… mmm… yes… there… Oh, god… faster… faster, please…”

Jamie paused and looked up at Claire, her face flushed, her curls in wild abandon on the pillow. He had never seen a more beautiful image. She tightened her legs around him, urging him to continue. He laughed.

“Jamie,” she gasped, her speech barely coherent. “Please… you tease… not for eight years… I need it…”

He bent his head, his mouth and tongue returning quickly to Claire’s very centre. Her hands reached down to keep him firmly in place.

“Jamie… that’s it… yes… yes… I feel it… don’t stop… please, I’m coming… yes… oh god… YES.”

Claire screamed the last word as her thighs clamped tightly around Jamie’s head, before relaxing and freeing him. He moved up the bed to lie alongside her. He felt himself harden even more at the knowledge that he was the only man who knew Claire this intimately.

Claire opened her eyes and smiled at him. “That was amazing.”

He returned the smile. “Worth an eight-year wait?”

She kissed him lightly. “If you think I’m waiting another eight years, James Fraser, you are very much mistaken. That is definitely on the menu on a regular basis. And…”

Claire reached down and ran a finger along his erection. He moaned softly.

“And now it’s time for me to return the favour…”

*************

They lay together, hot and sweaty, with aching limbs intertwined. There was no need for conversation now, it was enough to hold each other, to touch each other, to satisfy the dreams of the past eight years.

Claire suddenly sat up. “Jamie, what time is your father home?”

“Why?” Jamie asked sleepily, trying to pull Claire back onto the pillows.

“Our clothes… well, mainly my clothes… my t-shirt’s in the kitchen. My jeans are on the stairs. I think my bra is on the bannister and I have absolutely no idea where my knickers are.”

“And I suppose ye want me tae get up and collect them all?”

Claire nodded happily.

Reluctantly, Jamie climbed out of bed and wrapped his bathrobe around himself.

“I suppose this is how it’s going tae be from now on then? Ye telling me what tae do and me doing it?”

Claire nodded again. “Jamie… and while you’re downstairs, how about a cup of tea? And maybe a scone?”

Jamie smiled as he closed the bedroom door behind him.

Claire smiled as she snuggled back under the covers.

All was right with the world.

Chapter Text

And I'm thinking 'bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways
Maybe just the touch of a hand
Oh me I fall in love with you every single day
And I just wanna tell you I am

 

Ed Sheeran

 

One year later...

The church was awash with June flowers. White lilies and roses jostled with yellow freesias and blue delphiniums together with yards and yards of trailing ivy.

From his vantage point, Jamie looked around the church. The pews were filled nicely. Some faces he recognised and plenty he had never seen before in his life. Still, that was always the way with weddings -- different groups of families and friends coming together for this special occasion.

The organ started the opening bars of ‘Trumpet Voluntary’. John, standing next to Jamie, turned to look at the bride.

“She looks beautiful… and so happy.”

Jamie turned around and watched for a moment before commenting. “Aye she does… but no’ as beautiful as ma Sassenach here.”

He grabbed Claire’s hand and kissed the diamond solitaire ring on her finger.

******************
“That was a lovely wedding service. Douglas looked like he couldn’t believe his luck… he couldn’t stop grinning. Mind you, Anna does look… well, she always looks beautiful… but somehow today, she looks even more so… absolutely radiant.”

Claire sat down next to Jamie and placed her drink on the table in front of her.

“There’s no one looking more radiant then ye, ma love.”

Claire snorted. “That’s not radiance. What you’re seeing is the film of sweat brought about by prolonged nausea and regular puking. Not even the ginger ale seems to be helping.” She eyed her drink with distaste.

Jamie surreptitiously tried to move his whisky onto a side table. “I’m sorry about that. I ken it’s all ma fault, but it’ll be worth it in six months or so, aye?”

“Of course it will. But it’s not an easy job growing a human, you know.”

Jamie placed a hand on Claire’s barely visible bump. “I ken. So now we’ve passed the twelve weeks, when shall we start tae tell people?”

“Soon, Jamie, soon. I just like it as our precious little secret for the moment.”

“Aye… not planned, but treasured.”

John and Joe wandered over to join them. Jamie quickly moved his hand to rest on Claire's arm. Pulling up two chairs, they sat closely together, John’s arm casually resting along the back of Joe’s chair.

“So Miss Beauchamp, all ready for the big move?” Joe asked.

“We've done most of the packing now…”

“Using ‘we’ verra loosely there, aren’t ye, Sassenach?” Jamie interjected. “What Claire means is that she supervises, while I do all the lifting.”

Claire ignored him and carried on talking to John and Joe. “Removal men are coming on Wednesday.”

“So this is really it? Your big move.”

“It worked for a while, Jamie splitting his week between Lallybroch and here, but things change. Raigmore Hospital in Inverness may not be as big or leading edge as Glasgow, but there’s a lot happening in their cardiology department, so…”

“And it was thanks tae ma godfather, Murtagh, that I could do that. He helped out so much every week. But I think Jocasta’ll be happy with him at home all the time.”

Claire took a sip of her ginger ale. “And Uncle Lamb’s taking my move better than I thought. Turns out university living suits him. The pull of the library at all hours is just too great. He might even be persuaded to sell the house.”

“I must say, it has worked out rather well. With Anna and Douglas in the flat, it was handy for Mary to buy yours.” John took a sip of his drink. “Are you not drinking, Claire?”

“Er, no,” Claire answered hastily. “I decided to drive. Which you would know if you hadn’t been spending all your spare time at Joe’s place.”

John smiled at Joe. “I have been a bit MIA, I must admit. Anyway, has Anna’s wedding given you ideas? When are you going to start planning yours? All the best venues will be taken, if you’re thinking of this year.”

“It’ll probably be next year now. So much on this year… what with the move, selling my flat, new job…”

“Baby.”

“What?” Jamie and Claire spoke together, staring at Joe.

“Come on, Claire. I see you at work, remember? Been slightly green in the morning recently, plus no drinking, no lifting, no wedding planning. So, tell me I’m wrong?”

“Nah, Joe, ye’re no’ wrong. Jes’ twelve weeks now. Wee bit of a surprise, but our little treasure.” Jamie took out his wallet and passed the scan photo to John and Joe. “There ye are. Our wee Dalhousie Beauchamp Fraser.”

“If you think I’m calling any child of mine Dalhousie, you've got another thing coming, James Fraser.”

“Aye, Sassenach, anything you say.”